Posted August, 2018
Next month, it will have been fifteen years since the world lost the great Johnny Cash. Cash was brash, creative, and even bleeding edge in his approach to music and performing. If you have ever wondered: What if he were young and alive today; what if he were writing and performing music today; what if . . . a lot of things about the Man in Black.
The answers to those questions just may be in the person of his eldest grand kid, Thomas Gabriel. If you don’t believe me, give his debut CD, Long Way Home, a close listen and tell me it ain’t so.
It was because of Long Way Home – and coordinating with his label, CashTown Records, and his crack publicist team at Blue Moon Experience Group, that I had the privilege of speaking with Gabriel by phone at his Middle Tennessee home.
I genuinely like his work and the story he has to tell. While his grandpa is obviously a draw for him, I really think his story is compelling without the sizzle of the Cash name. I'd have wanted to interview him just for that, alone. He's going to have a tremendous, positive impact on people.
Because his name isn’t yet a household name, I asked Thomas to give us the Reader’s Digest version of his story.
“Obviously, I’m the oldest grandchild of Johnny Cash. I’m originally from California – Ventura, California, and moved here (the Nashville area) when I was young. My mother was extremely young when she had me, so I spent a lot of time with my grandparents; spent a lot of time on the road, motels, hotels, and buses and planes and that sort of thing.
“I got into music early on. In the early nineties, I was working on some projects and felt pretty good about it, actually. I had a pretty good EP together. I played it for my grandpa and he said he liked what he heard but because of that, he wanted me to have a backup plan; go finish school or get a job or whatever. In case it falls through, ‘I don’t want you to put everything into music quite yet. You’re too young.’
“I just turned twenty-one and he said he wanted me to go to the police academy. So, I went to the police academy. I was a police officer right under eight years. During that time – I’ve always had addiction problems like my grandfather did. Same chemicals. Same type of addictions. Pills got involved and that caused some series of events that led to me having to resign. Soon after, I started building an arrest record that got to be pretty lengthy pretty quick. The next thing you know, I also did about seven and a half years in prison.
About the same amount of time that I was a police officer, I was in prison!
“So, while I was in prison, I worked on music, again. It was the first time in a while that I had a clear enough head to start to sit down and really start putting my time and efforts back into that. It’s a God thing that that happened.
“When I got out, I immediately started working on the projects that I had started in prison. That was in 2013 when I got out. So, it’s been about five years, now. When I got out, I still had some chemical issues, but I went to a rehab facility. After I was clean a year, Brian Oxley – the Executive Producer of the album – called me up and said, ‘Hey, you’ve been clean a year. You’ve had time to get your stuff together. Are you ready to hit this full-force?’ I said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it!’ So, we’ve been doing it ever since.”
I asked Thomas if Long Way Home was the same music as the EP that he played for Grandpa Johnny.
“This album here is eleven songs. It’s an LP. The songs on it – no. None of them were from way back then. Basically, this album here is all of the events leading up to all the pain, all the chemicals, the failures, the mistakes. The dark part of leading up to this album. That’s what this album is about. The next one might be a lot happier. Ha! Ha! Who knows what the next one will be? But this one, I wanted to get all that out. I wanted to get it all out in the open and get it off.
“It’s got some songs that I wrote in prison. It’s got some songs that were presented to me from other people, also, that I related to. And, then, I co-wrote with others. It basically is the feel of everything that’s led up to this point.”
When I posited that – like his famous grandfather before him - his music may be the silver lining to his drug and incarceration, he agreed.
“Yeah! I totally agree. I agree with that a hundred percent! Like I said earlier, I think the prison thing – even though it was terrible, and it was devasting not only to me but to my family and everything else – but if I wouldn’t have, I think probably would’ve been dead by now. And, not only would I not be here, my kids wouldn’t have a father but, also, the music wouldn’t have happened, I don’t think. Even if I wouldn’t have died, I would’ve been so preoccupied with all these meaningless things that I was doing.”
I had to ask the obvious question: Why didn’t his grandpa’s experiences be a lesson to Gabriel to dissuade him from substance abuse?
“You know? I’ve wondered that myself and I’ve been asked that, too. Not quite like that but I’ve been asked similar questions. Personally, looking back, if I remembered back then, if I could put myself back in that time frame – say to the time that I was old enough to remember – from age 2, on – it was just part of it.
“It was never really a matter of, ‘Oh, that stuff’s bad.’ It was a matter of, ‘Oh. This is just part of what you do.’ It was the norm. Everybody that I was around and everybody I was related to and everybody I was associated with in the music scene – which was the only thing that I was exposed to – it was just part of it. I remember the availability, as a child, even. Then, of course, in the seventies – nowadays, if you gave a kid a sip of wine or let ‘em light your cigarette or whatever, you’d be all over Facebook or social media or whatever. You’d be on the front page of the newspaper. But back then, it was not such a big deal.
“So, the availability to me – even as a child – by the time I was eleven, I was a daily user. I was a daily drinker. By the time I was thirteen, I was introduced to AA. So, we’re talking about in sixth grade, it was the norm for me to have booze or whatever – pretty much anything I wanted.
“It’s kind of like the Drew Barrymore story. I was reading hers not too long ago. We were at the same age thing going on with these chemicals. It was just the availability. It was just part of it. It was another ingredient to the whole mix. It was the norm.
“So, I don’t think I really saw it as – until I started having serious, serious consequences from it, I don’t think I ever saw it as something that I was doing anything different from anyone else around me. I might be doing a lot more than everybody else around me. For some reason, I’ve got this natural resistance to – I mean, I’m one of these guys who can drink a half gallon of vodka and walk a straight line. Lots and lots of practice.”
On a brighter note, Thomas describes his music.
“I’ve tried to put a genre on what I do and what the music is. I’ve got a lot of influences. I’ve got country influence, obviously. I’ve got folk influence, obviously. Granddad didn’t even call himself a country artist. He called himself a folk artist. My album is a mix of rock with some Indie mixed in with some country mixed in with some – I don’t know. It’s just whatever I’m feelin’, man.
“I played some tracks for a friend of mine the other day. I played him all eleven songs. He’s, like, ‘Man! You covered all bases! One minute, you’ve got a steel guitar in the background with a full-fledged country song and the next you know, Pink Floyd comes on.’ Even if you get somebody who’s looking for one certain genre on it, all they gotta do is change to the next song and see if that one suits them better.
“So, I don’t know, man. It’s all about how I feel. I’ve written some really, really dark songs. Some of them I had to spread out across the album. Some of them I had to omit just because they were too dark. The other ones are just as I said. They’re about getting everything out; all this emotion; all my experiences – good and bad. Putting it down to where it’s an expression of me. It’s not me going and saying, ‘Hey, this is commercial. This will sell. Let’s try to get something that everybody will like.’ It wasn’t about that. It was about letting me get out what I’ve been wanting to get out for a long time.”
If someone wanted to catch Thomas Gabriel live, how would they go about doing that? The man, himself, says:
“All that is in the works, right now. Before I really committed to any sort of tour dates or anything, I wanted the album to be released. I didn’t want to go out there without a product. So, now that the release is July 14th, starting at the end of August, there will be a tour that will start in Nashville and going west – I know as far as Las Vegas. We’ve got some dates in Georgia and North Carolina, I believe. We’re also going to do the east coast, too. Starting in August, there are going to be a lot of tour dates. I don’t have them in stone, yet.
“When I’m in Tennessee, I don’t like playing Nashville. The Nashville Scene – I’ve done it and I could go without it. It’s not what it used to be. Which, by the way, there’s a song on my CD that talks about that, as well. It’s called, Twang Town. It describes exactly how I feel about Nashville. So, when I play Tennessee and Middle Tennessee – the Nashville area, I play Bon Aqua, which is Storyteller’s Hideaway Farm. I’ve got full access to it. It’s my grandpa’s old place. My grandpa’s old farm and the stage that he owned for a while. That’s home. I play there when I play – quote/unquote – the Nashville area.”
As for what’s on Gabriel’s radar for the next year?
“Trying to get this album out and, hopefully, see the world. Get around and meet as many as I can. My big thing is, like I said, I want to get it all out. But, also, because of my history and because of the things I’ve been through, the prison thing and the drug experiences and all that, I kinda see it as there’s so many times that I should’ve been dead, that, now, it really is about what I can do for everybody else. If my album, my presence, my show, whatever, helps a couple of people that are going through the same thing that I was stuck into for so long, that, right there, I think that God gave me that extra chance. If I didn’t do that, then I wouldn’t accomplish anything.”
Keep an eye on Thomas Gabriel. Do so not because of the obvious innate talent that’s embedded in his DNA, but for the impact this man is going to have on lives in a way that matters . . . in a way that resonates throughout eternity in the lives of many long after the music of life stops.