There are few greater tonics for Shetland’s legion of country music lovers than the mention of the name Johnny Cash.
So it comes as no great shock that tickets for this weekend’s pair of concerts by Felsons singer Dean Owens, plugging his new record Cash Back – Songs I Learned From Johnny, have been shifting well.
Owens has been a frequent visitor to these shores in the past 15 years, and the concerts – at Mareel on Friday and the Mid Yell Hall on Saturday evening – will be lent a local flavour by isles guitarist Arthur Nicholson.
The pair toured the material from Cash Back in November, and the two Shetland dates mark the start of a fresh round of concerts.
“I’ve known Arthur since he was about 12,” Owens said. “He used to come and follow The Felsons around Shetland. It got to the point where Arthur knew my material better than I did.”
The 14-track CD features some of the Man in Black’s lesser-known numbers, choice selections from his “revelatory” latter-day American Recordings series and one original composition, entitled The Night Johnny Cash Played San Quentin. It also includes favourites such as I Still Miss Someone, I Walk The Line and Bob Dylan cover Girl from the North Country.
Owens explains that the album was “kind of an accidental thing” and was as much recorded in memory of an old friend who passed away as it was a mark of respect to one of America’s most famous country singers.
“Growing up, everybody’s aware of Johnny Cash – he’s in the ether,” Owens told The Shetland Times. “It wasn’t until I was a bit more serious about music that I sat up and took notice.
“I’m a songwriter first and foremost and I never thought of doing an album of covers. I was worried about it coming out, people seeing it as a tacky tribute thing – that certainly wasn’t the intention. 99 per cent it’s been received okay, better than I thought it would.”
Owens has fond recollections of his band The Felsons’ appearance at the 1998 Shetland Folk Festival, despite his prior worries that people wouldn’t take to their brand of Americana.
“Predominantly it was fiddles, real traditional stuff, world music, but we went down a storm – that first festival is one of my greatest memories,” he said. “Having people singing songs was a bit of a change, you know. It’s sometimes a problem at folk festivals – sometimes the song gets lost, it’s more about the tradition.”
Islanders having taken to The Felsons’ music prompted a flurry of visits north, including an appearance at the 1999 Tall Ships Races: “There was a five-year period where I was up a lot, so much so that this old guy I kept seeing at the airport asked me if I had a Shetland passport.”
Most recently Owens performed as part of Davie Henderson’s pre-Christmas “spree” events in late 2011.
He puts islanders’ affinity with roots music, and country in particular, down to its “earthiness”.
“There’s not really any bullshit with it,” he said. “It’s the classic sort of cliché, three chords and the truth. That’s what these songs are, straight down the line.”
He is looking forward to hearing Friday’s supporting cast, a Shetland “songwriters’ circle” organised by Sheila Duncan, who is the driving force behind a series of singer-songwriter nights in the past 18 months.
“I don’t know what you put in the water there,” Owens said, “but it is amazing what comes out of Shetland for such a small island. The wealth and talent of music is awesome.”
While ticket sales have doubtless been aided by the prospect of hearing Cash songs performed in a live setting, Owens stressed he was “not doing an impersonation”.
Apart from anything else he is a tenor singer – setting him far apart from Cash’s unmistakably deep, bass-baritone vocal sound. Owens also plans to delve into his solo and Felsons back catalogue for the two shows.
“As long as they’re not expecting a guy dressed in black with a Southern drawl,” he joked. “This is me playing a bunch of songs that happened to be recorded by Johnny Cash, giving a bit back to the memory of an old friend.”