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Johnny, Waylon, Tom And Me 

Fast times at the Speedway Club

I was privileged to meet Johnny Cash once, on January 6, 1990. Like many people's brushes with celebrities, the encounter was one of those out-of-the-blue things that to this day has me pinching myself sometimes.

The Tom Cruise race car flick Days Of Thunder had been filming at the Charlotte Motor Speedway and in and around Charlotte -- the Observer was shitting itself so thoroughly every time the merest word of a Cruise sighting came in that folks took to calling the paper The Charlotte Cruise Watch -- and now, with shooting completed, it was time for the traditional cast/crew wrap party. Cruise put out a call for some live entertainment for his bash, to be held at the track's Speedway Club, and local roots-rock kingpins The Belmont Playboys got the nod. The band snuck my wife and me in as "roadies," thinking maybe I could finagle a quote from Cruise about them for Loafing (and for their press kit).

And while I would get my quote (Cruise: "Man, they [the Playboys] were rockin'!"), we all got a lot more than that. Just before the Playboys' first set at 9 pm, Cruise's co-star Robert Duvall walked in, accompanied by an entourage of Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash, Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter. Jaws dropped. People gawked. Once they were all settled in at their table I had to go speak to them.

Shaking Duvall's hand, I told him I enjoyed his country singing in Tender Mercies. He grinned and pointed at Cash. "Well thanks, but there's the real king right there." So I went over to Cash. I shook his hand and, by way of welcoming him to Charlotte, offered, "Mr. Cash, I think you're gonna like this band that's fixing to play." In that unmistakable deep baritone of his he replied, "Thank you, son, I'm sure I will." His wife smiled graciously at me and accepted my handshake as well.

The Playboys opened the show with a killer version of "Shake, Rattle And Roll," and by the third number Duvall was out on the boards making some sharp turns with his female companion. Not long after that the band plowed into "Rock "n' Roll Ruby," an old, somewhat obscure rockabilly tune of Cash's. Sneaking a look at Cash I saw him standing beside Jennings, both of them smiling and nodding their heads.

Between songs Cash walked over to the band to thank them, saying, "I just wanted to express my appreciation to you for doing my song. You guys sound great, just like we did 40 years ago!" Jennings came over and introduced himself as well, and before we knew it, both Cash and Jennings had gotten up onstage with the Playboys, launching into "Folsom Prison Blues," followed by "Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys" and several other tunes. Pure electricity.

The dance floor was crowded with enthusiastic, I-can't-believe-this-is- happening hoofers -- Cruise included. By the time June got up to harmonize and then duet with her husband for a version of "Jackson," most of us probably thought we were leaving our bodies. By set's end even Duvall was up there, doing a solo number and leading the entire room in a group singalong of "Will The Circle Be Unbroken."

It was a night to tell the grandchildren about.

As the Playboys' Mike Hendrix deadpanned the next day, "It's not every day you get to get up onstage with Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings."

Nor is it every day you get to witness something like that happen, either. I'm looking now at a cache of black-and-white snapshots taken at the show, including the one Loafing ran to accompany my account of the evening. In the photo Tom Cruise is in the foreground, grinning that famous Cruise grin as he dances with a young lady. Standing side by side on the stage are Johnny and June: she's clutching the mic, a huge, radiant smile on her face; he's brandishing one of the Playboys' Telecasters and casting an adoring sideways glance at June.

I'd like to think it was a night they told their grandchildren about too.

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