Interview: Heaven and Hell What the Big O did for Cash

Slim Pickens and Barry Ferrier present Heaven & Hell: The Friendship of Johnny Cash & Roy Orbison at the Byron Theatre on Friday at 8pm

Two friends come together to tell the story of two friends. Slim Pickens and Barry Ferrier don wigs and guitar to tell the story of Heaven and Hell, the friendship and the music of Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison.

Tell me, what is Heaven and Hell all about?

Two boys grew up in poverty, a few hundred miles apart, during the Depression, each driven to succeed by tough beginnings, going on to be world-famous stars through their prodigious talent. They met at the beginning of their careers and remained lifelong friends, understanding each other’s struggle. Riches and great success didn’t protect them from tragedy and heartache.

How did Cash and Orbison become friends?

Cash went to Texas to promote Cry Cry Cry, appearing on a radio show; the resident band featured Roy Orbison as vocalist. Johnny was so thrilled by Roy’s voice that he gave him Sam Phillips’s phone number at Sun Records, advising Roy to lower his voice and change his name. This led to Roy’s first hit Oobie Doobie, so Johnny and Roy’s stellar careers ran in parallel. Johnny was godfather to Roy’s son Alex, the only one of Roy’s three boys to later survive a house fire. Johnny bought the property when Roy would never go back there, and planted an orchard where the house was.

What was intrinsically different in their world views?

Both were religious, but though they had so much in common, they were opposites in so many ways – Johnny’s bass voice and Roy’s voice high like an angel; Johnny was a rebel and wild man, while Roy was shy and conservative. Johnny was taking drugs and leaving his first wife Vivian, while Roy was chasing his wild girlfriend Claudette, desperate to settle down; he married her twice before she died in his arms after a motorcycle accident at age 24.

How have they influenced you as a musician?

They were both storytellers, Johnny in the tradition of folksingers, but Roy developed his own style of pop opera. Each had a unique unmistakeable vocal style that was part of the sound track to our youth.

What are the songs of theirs that always thrill you when you hear them?

You can’t forget the tough realism of Folsom Prison Blues or the aching melancholy of Crying.

What’s it like to play the songs of Cash or Orbison, is it hard to make them your own? 

As no-one can really hope to closely imitate either of these unique artists, one inevitably must make the songs one’s own, but aim to capture the essence of the song. The songs are introduced into the show where they reflect the emotion of the story.

What should we expect for the show at the Byron Theatre?

No recorded backings, it’s all real – in the Cash songs, Slim plays standup bass and stompbox to Barry’s guitar; in the Orbison songs, Barry plays a unique mini-drumkit, keyboards and harmonica to Slim’s guitar, and together they produce a powerful harmony sound. The show is a fantasy, set at the Pearly Gates, as each reflects on their life story, hoping to make it through. It’s a full multimedia production with supporting imagery from their lives, featuring all their greatest hits.

Slim Pickens and Barry Ferrier present Heaven & Hell: The Friendship of Johnny Cash & Roy Orbison at the Byron Theatre on Friday at 8pm. Tickets are $35/25 at

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