Merle Travis Peterson and the rest of the Cold Hard Cash Show re-enact the “man in black.”
Photo courtesy of Leslie Johnsrud
It’s an unlikely circumstance when a small town performance lands a local band a coveted spot on national television, but The Cold Hard Cash Show recently found itself in that position.
Late night television legend David Letterman attended the Great Falls-based band’s July 3 performance in Choteau. Nothing unusual about that—it’s well known that Letterman lives near the small town (population: 1,700) and that he quietly sponsored elements of this year’s Independence Day event.
“We didn’t think anything would come of it,” drummer Felipe Torres says. “We knew he would be at the show, but we never imagined anything would come of it. Afterwards a bunch of friends were saying he gave us standing ovations and seemed to love us. We started joking around, saying, ‘What if he wants us on the show?’ and stuff, but never thought it would actually happen. Then, a month later, his people contacted us and now we’re doing it.”
Included in the gig: an expenses-paid trip to New York City, accommodations at a swanky hotel facing Central Park and a five-minute performance slot that will be part of the Tuesday, Nov. 18, edition of the “Late Show with David Letterman.” Whereas most musical acts that perform on the show are major label artists pushing product, The Cold Hard Cash Show is an obscure regional act that pays homage to one of America’s greatest musical legends. And they just happened to be at the right place at the right time.
“We’ve all been playing music our whole lives, so this is like the greatest thing that has ever happened to us as performers,” Torres says. “For the market we are in, it would be great if someone from some place like Vegas or something was watching, because that is where tribute bands like us are really in demand. It would be great to land some kind of ongoing gig somewhere, but like I said, we are just happy to be playing the show.”
The Cold Hard Cash Show features Merle Travis Peterson on guitar and vocals, Jeffrey Carroll on bass and Torres on drums. The three grew up together in Great Falls and have followed different musical paths since coming together with this lineup. Peterson started the band in 2004 after seeing a Black Sabbath tribute in Missoula; he wondered why no one was doing something similar with Cash. Originally gigging under the moniker of Cold Hard Cash, the band changed it to The Cold Hard Cash Show to reflect the idea that what they are doing is an effort to recreate the actual Cash show, not just serve as a cover band playing Cash’s material.
“We are a three-piece, and we are trying to remain true to what Johnny Cash was doing at various points in his career,” says Torres. “Like during the Folsom Prison show, he had the Statler Brothers and Carl Perkins with him, so we are thinking of bringing some extra people in for certain shows like that just to recreate that particular event.”
Over the past year the band has built a significant following, and that following has nearly doubled since word about the “Late Show” started getting around. Torres says the band’s authentic approach helps fans connect with an icon.
“It’s a lot of work recreating what Johnny Cash was doing, but it has been great too,” he says. “At first I had my doubts, because so many people have kind of an attitude about tribute bands just being glorified cover bands. But after shows, we started getting young college kids coming up to us, thanking us for doing what we are doing because they never got to see Johnny Cash live and this was the best way to experience what he was really like. Or we get old people who come up and say we really delivered on what they remembered their experience with Cash to be like. That is really cool when it happens.”
And fans, friends and fellow musicians have been very supportive and enthusiastic of the band’s good fortune.
“I was worried about it,” says Torres. “I didn’t really want to seem like I was bragging when we found out it was going to happen, but everyone has been really cool. The people of Great Falls treat us like kings when we go back there. Any bar we walk into, before long we have drinks lined up in front of us. We played there a couple weeks ago and the mayor was there. She told us she was going to officially declare the week of the 17th ‘Cold Hard Cash Week’. I don’t know if it is actually going to happen, but just the idea of it is really cool.”
Torres isn’t quite sure the reality has even sunk in yet. “It probably won’t until we are on stage,” he says, “and I drop a drumstick or something.”