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Hello, we're the Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash

By Joel Bernstein, June 2001

What's in a name? When the name is 'Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash', it's a set of expectations to live up to or overcome that bands with ordinary names might not have to deal with. But it's a name that people are sure to remember. In today's cluttered marketplace, that's a good thing.

It's probably no surprise that the leader of these San Diego country-rockers, Mark Stuart, used to front a punk band. (the X-Offenders). His new group's name is a fond tribute to the one living country artist that punk rockers have always embraced. "His image and attitude is rather punkish," Stuart explains, "more than the music itself. (Punks) are attracted to his bad boy image."

The band's album "Walk Alone" was just issued by Ultimatum. It includes nine songs the band had previously released independently as "Lasso Motel," plus three new recordings including the title song. The other additions were covers of Merle Haggard and Dale Watson, whom Stuart regards as "two great songwriters I wanted to include something by." Haggard is also a fan of the band, having personally picked them to be his opening act for a show last year.

Stuart's drift from punk to country was a gradual progression. "I've always liked country music. My mother was a big fan. There were always Marty Robbins, Faron Young and western swing records around the house. I went fishing with my dad, and we'd listen to Johnny Cash."

As Stuart's musical career developed "I started writing songs that sounded more and more country. You just have to go along looking for what you love, and then you start doing something close and personal. I had a body of (country) material and no band I could play them with."

The band's name was "divine inspiration." according to Stuart. "It just came to me while I was recording some songs. I just pretended it was a show, and I ended it by saying 'Thank you, we're The Bastard Sons Of Johnny Cash."

Although Stuart started using the name first, he felt that he ultimately needed Cash's blessing to continue with it. When Cash was guesting on the TV show "Renegade," Stuart got onto the lot. "I had a letter and a tape. I knocked on his trailer door. I told his assistant the story. Three days later, Johnny Cash called me himself and said 'I'd be honored if you'd be my bastard sons.'"

What was in the letter that Johnny Cash read? "I told him some of my best memories were of his songs, and that I had been inspired by his independent spirit. He encompasses the American spirit. He's a hero for a lot of musicians."

And of course, there was also the music, which Cash obviously approved of.

"I was amazed that Johnny Cash was as cool as I wanted him to be. He exceeded my expectations for a man in his position extending a helping hand. He knows it's about a sense of humor and having a good time. He knows country music is taking itself too seriously."

When the band later played in Nashville, "John Carter Cash (Johnny's real son) came to see us and was very supportive. It's about the music, it's not about the name."

Stuart is aware that the name can also create some problems. "I think a lot of people are thrown by (it). They think we're going to be a punk rock band. I wanted to bring attention to the music. It's a sort of a mission statement. It's a double-edged sword. It will probably keep us out of some places. It brings attention to the music and might bring people out to our shows."

Asked whether he considered his group a country band or a twangy rock band, Stuart says, "We can be both. I guess we're a country band that rocks. Alternative country was hip and happening for a while. It was a catch phrase for instant credibility. If you're going to be country, you should stick at least a little bit close to the traditions. You have a whole group of rock bands falling under the name 'alternative country' or now Americana. They're just looking for a way to label music that isn't anything else. There isn't just a heading that says 'Music'. Alt.-country or Americana encompasses a little too much."

Stuart cites some advice from his hero. "Johnny Cash told me 'Play the music you want to play, and call it what you want. You can get screwed either way, but you'll be happier if you don't follow someone else's rules and then get screwed anyway.' I write what I write. I have a lot of songs, a pretty good catalogue. I'm not going to run out of ideas any time soon."

Some have compared the Bastards to long-time San Diego faves The Beat Farmers (although the Bastards CD is more consistently country than the Farmers'work).

"I like the Beat Farmers. The X-Offenders used to open for them a lot. They're definitely an influence in how you could blend country and rock in an energetic sort of way. My dream is to be like The Beat Farmers or some other cool bands. "

Stuart's intends to do it while based in San Diego, even though there is no longer a real scene for this music in Southern California. "I like the band I have now, and they all live here. The last thing Austin needs is for another country band to move in. If you work real hard and get some breaks it doesn't matter where you're located. You just pile in a van and go play."