Ballads and prison blues

Living

IN THE BLOOD Thomas Gabriel’s life story has channelled the spirit of his famous grandfather in more ways than one.

Johnny Cash’s grandson to bring songs and stories to Westport next week

Ciara Moynihan

Thomas Gabriel has followed in the footsteps of his grandfather, Johnny Cash. His own career as a singer-songwriter is entwined with that of the legendary Man in Black – and his life story even echoes some of Cash’s famous lyrics – and his more infamous predilections.
Now Gabriel is touring Ireland with his acoustic show ‘Songs & Stories With Thomas Gabriel – Growing Up Cash’, stopping off in the Jester Bar, Westport, on Thursday, October 13. Audiences are promised a very personal and intimate glimpse into his life growing up with Johnny Cash and June Carter.
In January 1968, Johnny Cash took to the stage at Folsom State Prison to deliver an electrifying show. The performance was captured on a live album released just four months later, topping the charts, revitalising the maverick country star’s career and selling more than 3 million copies on its way to becoming an all-time classic.
Fifty later, in 2018, Thomas Gabriel was following in his grandfather’s footsteps at the infamous California prison. But for Thomas, who had grown up around these songs, and was finally getting his own music career off the ground in his 40s, it took playing behind the prison’s walls to fully appreciate their legacy.

‘Surreal’
“It… was surreal,” he recalls. “When you’re growing up and you’ve got these songs that are monumental – the whole world knows them, you’ve got all these songs that he made famous, for me, even as a little kid, they were just songs.
“They never really hit home until – honestly – I went and was standing on a stage in Folsom Prison in front of Folsom prisoners, singing the song Folsom Prison Blues, and it just hit me – the magnitude of that.
“There was even one guy in the audience that was there for his show and mine – he had been there the whole time. He was incarcerated when he was 18 years old and was still there.
“That thing about the prison stuff – a lot of the songs my grandfather sang, they were stories to him, that ironically I ended up living out.”
Given Gabriel’s family history, it is almost no surprise that he is a living distillation of numerous hard-living country music tropes – there had been trouble with drink and drugs, with the law, and with women. And hearing him sing, genetics have given him his grandfather’s voice.
He released his debut ‘Long Way Home in 2018’, while a new collection, ‘The Treehouse Sessions’, came out recently.

From cop to jailbird
The eldest of Cash’s grandchildren – he is the son of Kathy, one of the four daughters from Cash’s first marriage, to Vivian Liberto. Kathy had Thomas at just 16, and he grew up with the singer (by now married to June Carter) often taking on a parental role.
Being the eldest grandchild, he was close to he is grandfather, and remembers him fondly as supportive presence.
“What he put on stage and what he gave to his fans, was not a façade – that was him.
“He had the courage to put himself out there and he didn’t hide anything; that was part of him. Then there was the private side of him that was extremely down to earth.
“For me he was more of a parental figure and I got into a lot of trouble, so with me, he was stern and all, but the thing about it is that he always had a lot of respect for other people.
“When it came to big decisions like life and music and all that, he was always supportive as long as – and he even said this – you keep it true.”
The young Thomas was keen to follow in the family trade as a musician. His grandfather let him use his studio, but while Cash believed he showed promise, he also urged the younger man to have a fallback plan.
“His idea was to go to the police academy and to become a police officer,” explains Thomas, “so I did that.”
He was a police officer for eight years in Nashville, Tennessee, but his addictions finally led to a lengthy arrest record and a number of years in prison. His grandfather’s advice changed.
“When I got out of jail, he said: ‘Get back to your music’.”

Keeping it true
Thomas actually wrote most of what became his deeply autobiographical debut while still behind bars.
“If you look at the album, it’s kind of a timeline, it was meant to be from my first memories to the time of release of that album.
“Putting all those songs together and releasing them was really good for me. It was an accomplishment I needed to have. I needed to take all of that life experience and put it out and share it.
“The good thing about ‘Long Way Home’ is I’ve had a lot of feedback from people saying that they can relate, and it’s helped them out. That being the case, none of that was in vain.”
The new EP, ‘Treehouse Sessions’, features seven stripped-back, acoustic tracks. In the studio with just guitar and vocals, he had been planning to rehearse some new material, but decided to try something different.
“Something I had always wanted to do was to just press record and sit there and do some of my favourite songs – some of the ones I enjoy doing. We sat there and did around ten songs, and when we got done, I was like, that’s a really refreshing way to do it.
“That’s the way they used to do it back in the ’50s and early ’60s, when they would go in, they had a microphone and literally recorded it live, and they kept what they had.
“They kept not only the true raw performance, but it came from the soul.”
Thomas had planned to be on the road for much 2020, which of course never happened due to the pandemic. Still, the time out served a dual purpose, he says – it helped keep him clean and sober, and it became a creatively productive time during which he got much new writing done. Like his grandfather before him, it seems, he learned to walk the line.   

Thomas Gabriel will perform ‘The Songs & Stories of Thomas Gabriel – Growing Up Cash’, at The Jester Bar, Westport, on October 13. Tickets are available from directly from the venue.