Local music veteran Mark Shurilla had been performing his "Rockin' '50's Dance Party" tribute to the music of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper for nearly a quarter-century and it had evolved into a sizable, successful show.
One day, a theater owner in Chilton, Wis., made a simple request and the show got bigger.
"The guy asked if we could do a Johnny Cash tribute," Shurilla said in a phone interview this week. "I immediately thought of the Liam Ford Band. They are a WAMI (Wisconsin Area Music Industry) award-winning rockabilly group. They do a bunch of different songs in their set, but Liam was sort of basing his thing off Johnny Cash. That was the basis of the identity of the Liam Ford Band.
"I just worked with him to develop it into a Johnny Cash show."
What started as a "one-off" for a curious club owner has evolved into a full-blown tribute. "The 20 Greatest Hits of Johnny Cash," will make its local debut Friday night at Shank Hall, 1434 N. Farwell Ave. Tickets for the show, which begins at 8 p.m., are $10.
"It's worked into its own entity," Shurilla said. "It's ready for its own little spotlight. The show at Shank Hall will be the first real step out of the theater."
Ford, who was known as Billy Staff when he fronted Big Bang Theory, will perform the Cash role with help from Jayne "The Firecracker" Taylor, a 16-year-old sensation from Elm Grove whose new CD features a duet with Ford/Staff on "Jackson."
"We had Jayne do the June Carter part (in "Jackson") and the response was great," Shurilla said. "She sings a lot of Wanda Jackson and Brenda Lee-type stuff. She's releasing her album Friday and it has the duet with Liam and some originals and a some work by Tommy Greywolf, a great country fiddle player who is kind of a co-star of the record."
Greywolf will be on hand Friday, along with Shurilla's band, The Greatest Hits.
"We don't do straight, hardcore covers," Shurilla said. "We've added some firepower. There are some horns and harmonies. We're able to replicate the orchestration of the records.
"It's a little bit of a more expanded sound."
Shurilla selected the 20 songs that will be featured, but was quick to point out that the band is prepared to do more.
"I sat down and researched the Billboard charts and analyzed things," he said. "Some of the choices were obvious, but these are the greatest hits. We'll do "Ring of Fire," and "Walk the Line" and "Daddy Sang Bass." But, we'll also do a song from The Highwaymen. It will be a full sound.
"We've played 1,000-seat theaters up north. This show is kind of made for theaters. People really like it. Liam really is a natural for this show. His personality really comes across. It's a good fit."
Shurilla, a veteran of "tribute shows," said that the Cash craze got a jumpstart from the popular movie "Walk the Line," and shows no sign of slowing.
"People want to see movies and TV specials," he said. "There are quite a few people out there doing Johnny Cash tributes and they're doing very well. I'd say it has far surpassed the number of Elvis impersonators.
"One reason is that you can do it in a stripped-down version. You just need two or three guys. We do a little more orchestration than that and people have responded well.
"It's all about survival in the music business. It's a good niche to be in."
Host of “The Drew Olson Show,” which airs 1-3 p.m. weekdays on The Big 902. Sidekick on “The Mike Heller Show,” airing weekdays on The Big 920 and a statewide network including stations in Madison, Appleton and Wausau. Co-author of Bill Schroeder’s “If These Walls Could Talk: Milwaukee Brewers” on Triumph Books. Co-host of “Big 12 Sports Saturday,” which airs Saturdays during football season on WISN-12. Former senior editor at OnMilwaukee.com. Former reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.