Kellye Cash, Johnny’s Great-Niece, Steps Into Leading Role at the Wick

Hypothetically, let’s say you’re a theatre company that’s producing the play “Always … Patsy Cline,” and you’re in a jam, and you suddenly need to book a replacement Patsy. In this situation, a professional singer and a relative of country-music legend Johnny Cash isn’t the worst candidate to consider. And if that great-niece of the Man in Black has played that very role nine times in the past—and has even created her own Patsy Cline tribute concert, “Cash & Cline?” Then it’s no longer a matter of managing a crisis: It’s hitting a second jackpot.

The Wick Theatre ran into this issue last week, when its first Patsy Cline, Terri Dixon, ran into some health issues and needed to divide the remainder of the run with another singer-actor with an abiding knowledge of Cline’s oeuvre. So in stepped Nashville’s Kellye Cash, whose famous surname only hints at her myriad talents: A former Miss America (she won the crown in 1987), Cash is also a classically trained pianist and a versatile vocalist with a musical-theater career encompassing “Mamma Mia!,” “Annie Get Your Gun,” “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” and more.

This Sunday, Cash will play Cline in the Wick’s Mother’s Day performance, and then all three days of the production’s extension, on May 22-24. And this Thursday through Saturday, she’ll be performing cabaret concerts in the Wick lobby beginning at 9:30 p.m., which is included for ticket-holders, and costs $20 for visitors who just want to see Cash sing show tunes and country classics alike.

She discussed her famous family name, the enduring legend of Patsy and the challenging of stepping into a role mid-show in this conversation with Bocamag.

I had no idea when I woke up this morning that I’d be interviewing a new Patsy Cline who also happens to be Johnny Cash’s great-niece.

It’s kind of a fun thing, because as you can imagine, Johnny knew Patsy very well. He was still living when I first started doing Patsy in 2001, and other than my immediate family, he was one of the first people I tried to find, to let him know I was doing the role, because I wanted him to be proud of me!

I didn’t grow up singing country music. Even though I was a Cash, I was a classical pianist growing up. I always sang show tunes and contemporary Christian music and gospel. Johnny was in the hospital in Nashville, and one of my first trips was to go see him, and let him know that I had finally arrived as a Cash.

Which songs of Johnny’s have you taken on as your own over the years?

My dad is Roy Cash; Johnny is my dad’s uncle. Johnny and my grandfather were brothers. My grandfather was 12 years older than Johnny, so Johnny was closer in age to my dad. They grew up much more like brothers. When my dad was in college, he wrote a song in an accounting class—he obviously was bored—and it became one of Johnny’s signature songs, “I Still Miss Someone.” To this idea I still sing it in my concerts. I’ve done the musical “Ring of Fire,” written by Richard Maltby, who also wrote “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and other award-winning shows. My family and I get together and do concerts, and we do a four-part arrangement of “Walk the Line,” which is not in typical Johnny style, except that my son, who is a bass, takes the low verse, which is fun, because he also sings high.

It’s amazing how these songs were so austere when they were first performed, yet they can become so lush.

I’m going to just admit that, because I studied classical music for years, I don’t think I really understood the beauty in simple music—country, and some of the gospel songs of old, seemed simple musically, because I was accustomed to playing Rachmaninoff. Once I really started doing this show and investigating my uncle’s music and the beautiful storytelling and the way the simplicity of the chords highlight that beautiful story, what you just said is true: It becomes lush. “Ring of Fire” was so moving, and the same thing happens with “Always … Patsy Cline.”

Of course, we have the signature songs that you have to sing because they are associated with Patsy Cline. But many of the songs are there to move the story along, and you realize how many of those are about her life, and they’re beautiful, no matter who sings them, because of the music and the words. And I just have such an appreciation for country music now that you would have thought I had as a child—good grief, I’m from one of the most famous country-music families in the world! It took a while in my life to appreciate it as much as I do. I can remember one day, when I was playing my dad’s songs, and saying, “you know your song only has three chords.” And my dad said, “Young lady, a good song only needs three chords.”

You’ve worked in country-music concerts as well as traditional Broadway musicals; does performing Patsy songs require a different skill set than a typical Broadway show?

I didn’t think that it did, but it is. I’ve noticed it, coming back after 12 years to this production. There’s actually a score, and the music and notes are written out. We were going through it, and I kept being corrected—“well, the music says …” And as a pianist, I read music, of course. And I’d be like, “Yes, but that’s not how Patsy sings it.” And there is a difference.

Patsy died two years before I was born. I lived in Tennessee, 12 miles from where her plane went down. There are people in my town that remember it like it was yesterday. I have family members who knew her. My dad has gone bowling with her. I have all these weird connections to her, and I feel like I know this lady. I have such a desire and almost needto sing the signature songs. But if I’m moving the story along, then obviously I’m going to be theatrical and sing it emotionally charged. But on some of these songs, it’s not how Patsy sang it, and it’s just killing me to make these changes. That’s my country-music instincts coming out, and I’ve had to give in to the direction of the show. There has to be a little give and take. Occasionally, I have won a few of those battles.

I would think there would be challenges not only with the musical arrangements, but with learning the blocking, and working with a local actress you’ve never worked with before.

Having done this show so many times, I’ve had seven different Louises. I’m accustomed to different styles. By the way, this actress is wonderful. I did the Saturday matinee last week, which was, I’m sure, scary for her, since I was at no rehearsals. But it went very well; I had one song I had trouble with, because it wasn’t in any of my other productions. So I sadly made up a few lyrics, which somehow people didn’t notice. The people on set noticed, of course; the next time it will be fine. She adapted very well with some of my blocking, and she was very reactionary, which was great.

For those who don’t know, this show is about an epistolary relationship that develops between Cline and one of her greatest fans, a housewife named Louise Seger who you might say has an otherwise uneventful life. It’s easy to see what this homemaker gets from the relationship; why do you think it went the other way as well? What did Patsy appreciate from forging this connection with a fan?

I get this so completely, because I have traveled a great deal of my life, especially the year that I was Miss America, and went from hotel room to hotel room. I have often said that the busiest year of my life was perhaps the loneliest year of my life, because every other day I was on an airplane. One of Louise’s statements in the show is something like, I thought it was a shame that Decca Records sent her out there all by herself. I think this was a very lonely lifestyle, and I think it was nice to get past that fandom and see that this was someone who had shared experiences—husband troubles, two children—even though they came from different backgrounds.

Since I’m a Cash, I have seen how many of my family members turned to a lifetime of alcohol and drug addiction. Of course, Johnny’s struggle was very known, because of the movie “Walk the Line.” I understand it, because I’ve seen it in my own family. You’re around all these people, but you’re not sure who is your real friend and who just actually likes you for who you are. It was a bond that she needed. She had babies at home, she showed up to play with a band she didn’t know …

Kind of like you in this scenario!

I know, trust me! I had a moment in the show where I left Patsy for just a second on Saturday, because I got overwhelmed with the fact that I just came in and did the show. I thought, oh my God, this is me right now. During the moment when she’s singing to her child, the first line of “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” is “I am weak, but thou are strong.” I thought, this is so me. I had never quite done anything this nerve-wracking—left everything, rearranged my schedule, and I had a moment where I was like, good grief. Surely, I did not just do this. It was very much like her lifestyle. And then I came back!

“Always … Patsy Cline” runs through May 24 at the Wick Theatre, 7901 N. Federal Highway, Boca Raton. Tickets cost $75-$85. Call 561/995-2333 or visit thewick.org.