THERE WAS A MOMENT in September 2007 at the Cash Cabin, the studio built by the late Johnny Cash outside Nashville, when everyone froze. In the room were musicians intimately tied to Cash and his music—his son John Carter Cash, his bass player Dave Roe, and Jamie Hartford, who played guitar in the Cash biopic Walk the Line. Vince Mira, the Federal Way teen flown in for the recording session, had just crooned the last line of his “Cold Hearted Woman,” a twangy harangue against a cruelly apathetic succubus (“…as far as you are isn’t far enough for me”), leaving his audience speechless.
Finally, Hartford, who’d been scribbling music dictation in a notebook, dropped his pen and paper and turned to the producer. “John. Carter. Cash. Does that freak you out?” John looked up, “Yeah, that freaks me out.”
John Carter had just heard a familiar voice pour from the mouth of the teenager. The producer had agreed to record an album with the talented teen—already making a name for himself with Cash covers—on the condition that “We don’t just record a bunch of my dad’s old songs.” Now, here was Mira performing an original, but his voice, a haunted baritone, was spot-on Johnny Cash.
Nearly two years, an EP, and an album later, Mira’s been heralded by local and national media as some sort of multicultural reincarnation of the Man in Black. He draws crowds wherever he performs—the Sasquatch! Music Festival, Bumbershoot, the Can Can Cabaret club. Success is sweet for the shy teen from the suburbs. But can he make the leap from novelty to bona fide music star?
If that question is on the mind of the audience at the Can Can, where Mira performs every Tuesday, no one’s showing it. On stage—any other night of the week the site of sex-charged vaudeville—Mira tunnels through to the next Johnny Cash tune like a locomotive groaning past a company town. “I got great big blisters on my bloodshot eyes from looking at that long legged woman up ahead,” he sings, mouth darting around the microphone like a teenager gathering courage around the lips of his first girl. Head crowned with jet black pompadour, body sheathed in a tight black suit, white shirt cuffs exploding at the wrists, the 17-year-old troubadour strums his Gibson and wails on: “And ever since she started running round from bar to bar I just can’t eat a bite or keep my stomach settled down.”
The crowd—shaggy twentysomethings with hands stuffed in their peacoat pockets, conventioneers steered to the Can Can by concierges with a flair for shocking out-of-towners, a pear-shaped dad elbowing his daughter every time a familiar honky-tonk song begins—is like a 56-person sound system programmed to say Oh my god and Are you kidding me every 11 seconds, a reaction that’s more disbelief than pop-cult critique. And in between songs: “Play ‘Cocaine Blues’!” “Play ‘Ring of Fire’!” “Walk the Line!”