NORTH ADAMS, Mass. -- For a brief moment recently, the Mohawk Theater was filled with the sounds of a deep bass-baritone voice singing "Folsom Prison Blues," as a man in black stood center stage playing the famous Johnny Cash song on his acoustic guitar.
Moments before, Harold Ford, who will perform a tribute concert, "The Spirit of Johnny Cash," on Saturday, Sept. 29, at 8 p.m., at the theater, said he'd gotten a "vibe" as he walked across the same stage that Cash played on in 1988.
A ‘ghostly feeling'
"I'm sort of sensitive to a ghostly feeling. I pick them up sometimes and I'm not really into that sort of thing," he said. "This (place) seems have some sort of energy going on here," he said. "That's going to be great because it really puts me in the mood. (Cash) was the last person to do ‘Folsom Prison Blues' here and I'm the one going to bring it back."
Ford will be joined on the stage by his band, The Cash Band, and Laura Lucy, who will appear as June Carter, Cash's wife. The concert, which is limited to 600 to 400 seats and 200 standing-room-only tickets, will mark the 75th anniversary of the art-deco theater and double as a fundraiser for the Mohawk Restoration Project and the Williamstown Rural Lands Foundation.
"I'm really fortunate to be the first one to play here" since the theater closed in 1991, he said, as a large smile crept across his face. "We can't help but feel that Johnny's been blessing us.
Ford's career as a tribute artist has been serendipitous, having begun just three years ago after his fiancée, Gina Grillo, who now acts as his manager, prodded him into singing at an open mic night at a night club in upstate New York.
"She's the one who suggested I sing some Johnny Cash songs," he said. "The response from the audience was overwhelming."
Since then, things have just "happened" for them, Grillo, who is also Lucy's mother, said.
"Things just come to us," she said, emphasizing that Ford isn't an impersonator. "He doesn't have to try. He doesn't have to push. He's always had a strong resemblance and that's his natural voice."
Ford spent most of his life as a logger in the Northwest. He learned to play the guitar at the age of 14, but only really played and sang at family gatherings.
The couple believes that fate played a role in connecting them with Josiah "Joe" Low III, of Williamstown, who they first met last October when he called Grillo looking for tickets to a show at the Fort Salem Theater in Salem, N.Y.
"We had two tickets left for the show, which was being held in the little church that's been converted into a theater," she said. "It really was fate."
After the show, Low, a self-described "huge fan of Cash" -- he drove out from Wyoming in 1957 to attend Williams College with 16 packs of Coors and about 20, 33 1/3 Cash records -- met with Grillo and Ford.
"I said to Gina, ‘I've got the perfect venue for a fundraiser in or around Williamstown.' After talking with Mayor (Richard) Alcombright, I blended his idea of a fundraiser for the Mohawk with my bringing ‘Johnny Cash' back to this area," Low said. "After a little research, we found that Cash was the last performer of any renown to play at the theater."
He added, "I like to give to charity in different ways. It's easy to write a check, but this is going to have more of an impact. I can't think of two better groups of preservation to support -- preserving a historic building and preserving our rural lands."
The concert will be presented in the theater's raw state, with Mass MoCA handling the lighting, sound and seating arrangements. Doors to the theater will be kept open to cool the auditorium and port-a-potties will be the only bathrooms available to the audience.
The Mohawk Theater is located on Main Street. Tickets for the concert can be purchased through the Mass MoCA box office. VIP tickets, which include a reception from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at 107 Main St. and Mohawk Theater-themed goodie bags, are $75 and are only available for purchase in person or by calling the box office at 413-664 4481. All other tickets for the show, seated for $29, $19 standing-room only and $12 for standing-only for students, can be purchased in person, by phone or online at www.massmoca.org.