By Pam Windsor | Photography courtesy of Diana Sterk
His journey back to music has taken Thomas Gabriel through some dark and difficult places, but the eldest grandson of Johnny Cash believes he’s overcome his obstacles. The Man in Black would be very proud.
When people first hear Thomas Gabriel sing, they are struck by the rich, gravelly quality of his voice. Fans of his famous grandfather catching Gabriel’s version of “Ring of Fire” or “Hurt” often remark, “He sounds a lot like Johnny.” But it soon becomes clear Gabriel has his own, unique style. He’s been surprised by the positive response to his Cash Legacy Tour.
“I thought people would be curious because of him and then if they liked my music they would catch on,” he says. “But the majority of the people who come to see the shows say they’ve heard my album or been told about me by a friend or relative and come to hear my music.”
Much of this is new to Gabriel because that rich, gravelly voice has been silent for most of the past three decades.
Gabriel was born to Cash’s daughter, Kathy, when she was only 16. Since she was so young, he spent a lot of time on the road with Johnny Cash and his wife, June Carter Cash.
“Sometimes my grandpa would get us up on stage when we were kids. We’d do songs like “Will the Circle Be Unbroken? I can even remember being on stage with Mother Maybelle Carter (matriarch of the Carter Family), so that had to be at least 1978.”
He saw his own future in music, but as a kid, he began drinking and getting involved in drugs. So, when Gabriel was about 19 and took some of his music to Cash (who’d had his own problems with drugs and alcohol through the years), the legendary performer steered him away from the music business.
“He did give me props,” Gabriel says. “He said the writing’s good, but I needed to work on my vocals. He said I reminded him of himself when he was younger.”
But Cash wanted Gabriel to do something else first. He wanted him to become a police officer.
“Knowing the business as he did, knowing me like he did with me having addiction problems at the time, I totally understand it now,” Gabriel says. “But back then, I was heartbroken.”
He spent the next eight years in law enforcement until drugs and alcohol intervened. It led to a series of arrests, the end of his police career, and eventually 10 long years in prison. Through it all, he and his grandfather were often at odds as Cash tried to help Gabriel get on the right track.
In prison, Gabriel began writing songs and had quite a collection when he was released. But with no clear direction, he returned to drugs and alcohol. One night, he received a call from a man he’d never met, who got his number from Gabriel’s mom.
Brian Oxley, the son of missionaries, had grown up in Japan and recently bought Johnny Cash’s former hideaway farm in the country.
They met the next day and Gabriel told Oxley he wanted to get back into music. Oxley offered to help if Gabriel would go to rehab. Gabriel agreed. A year later, he got out and began pursuing music.
Gabriel’s first album, titled “Long Way Home,” includes a number of songs he wrote in prison. He’s been surprised to find how they’ve resonated with people experiencing some of that same darkness.
In October, he had the chance to perform at Folsom Prison some 50 years after Johnny Cash recorded his famous live album there.
“We weren’t allowed to go in with a full band like he did in 1968,” Gabriel explains. “It was just me and Derek Toa, my guitar player. It was just an acoustic set, but it turned out to be extremely powerful.”
They did two shows, the first for a group of inmates with lower security restrictions. The inmates had their own guitar class and did a short performance. Then Gabriel sang.
“The response was fantastic. They gave us their undivided attention and afterward they all lined up and I got to talk to them and share some of my experiences when I was locked up.”
Then, Gabriel and Toa performed for a second group with much higher security restrictions. The inmates were watchful and wary, and one told Gabriel he’d been there when his grandfather performed all those years ago. The inmate said “he” would judge whether Gabriel was any good.
“It wasn’t very comfortable in the beginning,” Gabriel says. “It was like they were trying to see if I was legit. But about two songs in, we were suddenly all on the same page and they were just as warm and welcoming as the first crowd had been.”
Many of the inmates seemed to connect with his song called “Cell.” He wrote it in solitary confinement during one of the darkest times in his life.
“To go to another prison and sing that song to somebody that experiences that every day and have them realize, wait a second, he got out and now he’s telling people how it is to be me. It was a really incredible feeling.”
Gabriel’s now working on writing songs for his second album and touring the U.S.
“I’ve got the best band. We’ve met some great people on the road and I can’t wait to see what else is in store for us.”
It’s been a long journey, but Gabriel believes he’s now right where he’s supposed to be.
“The reason I’m where I am today, as far as with myself, is because I’m happy.”
He thinks his grandfather would be pleased.
“I think he’d be proud and maybe surprised because I was in a much darker place when he passed. But he always told me I could do anything I wanted; it’s just that I needed to be okay with me first.”