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(Credit: Mark Dillman)

Music

The incredible story of how Bob Wootton became Johnny Cash’s guitar player

Most of us music fanatics have probably fantasised about being called up to join our heroes on stage and have flitting mental images of shredding a mean guitar riff or drum solo while said hero stands awe-struck with a hanging jaw. In reality, most of us would freeze up, with the major concern being continence and remaining upright. On occasion, artists invite fans to the stage to perform with them, but these stories never work out as well as that of the Johnny Cash super-fan, Bob Wootton, when he took to the stage in 1968. 

In August of that year, Cash’s permanent lead guitarist and member of the Tennessee Three, Luther Perkins, sadly died aged 40 during a devastating house fire. With a busy touring schedule booked for the autumn, Cash was forced to hire a last-minute replacement. Cash managed to bring in Carl Perkins (no relation to Luther), who was only accepted temporarily as his style wasn’t quite what the band were looking for. 

Bob Wootton, a keen follower of Cash’s from Paris, Arkansas, set off to see Cash and his band live on their tour stop at Fayetteville, Arkansas, at a campaign rally for Governor Winthrop Rockefeller. By a stroke of luck for Wootton, a delayed flight kept Carl Perkins and the bassist grounded, leaving Cash and his drummer, W.S. Holland, onstage with a bit of a quandary on their hands. 

As Cash prepared for the possibility of a stripped-back set, Wootton approached him from the audience and explained that he could fill in for the night. Without much of an alternative option, Cash humoured the idea, and upon hearing Wootton play, he couldn’t believe his ears. The 26-year-old local had Cash’s style down to a tee and stunned the crowd with instant chemistry. 

On parting ways at the end of the evening, Cash told Wootton that he might call for him again someday. Fortunately, “someday” came within a couple of days, with Cash asking him if he would join the band for the remainder of the tour, replacing Carl Perkins. Presumably, Wootton responded, “is the Pope Catholic?” or something of that ilk. 

Wootton remained Cash’s lead guitarist for the remaining 29 years of Cash’s touring career and even appeared on such tracks as ‘I Walk the Line’ and ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ on the iconic 1969 album recorded at San Quentin State Prison

After Cash retired from the stage in 1997, Wootton decided to take on some work outside of music and became a tour bus driver, serving a stint driving for The Smashing Pumpkins. Before his death in 2017, aged 75, Wootton played a handful of tribute concerts with The Tennessee Three to keep the memory of his late hero alive.

Listen to the audio recording from Wootton’s first show alongside Johnny Cash below.