Profile 2023 — Breaking genres

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 11, 2023

Rob McNurlin
(Submitted photo)

For musician Rob McNurlin, it always seems to come back to Johnny Cash. 

McNurlin, an Americana artist who described his music as “just a big mess of everything that we like, country, blues, gospel, a little bit of everything,” is from Westwood, Kentucky, but travels frequently to Nashville, Tennessee. 

The Man in Black is who inspired him to pick up a guitar at a young age. Cash’s son produced his first album. He even met and hung out with Johnny Cash and his crew a few times. 

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McNurlin said he didn’t come from a musical family, but “they love music.” 

He still remembers the 45s and albums that his parents had when he was growing up. 

“Oh, man, they had the records,” he said. “Mom had a box of 45s with Elvis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Johnny Cash… all the good stuff. Dad had Johnny Cash albums, Hank Williams, Marty Robbins.” 

He said the funny things was that this was the late ‘60s and “I would hear Mom and Dad say they didn’t like rock and roll. So, I grew up thinking Elvis and Chuck Berry and Little Richard and all those people were country singers. By today’s standards, they are traditional rock and roll singers. And it worked out fine for me.” 

McNurlin started performing in the early ‘80s but has been performing for a living since 1993. 

As a kid, he was really into Elvis, but the singer that stuck with him was Johnny Cash. 

“He’s the one that really made me want a guitar,” McNurlin said. “The Johnny Cash TV show premiered in the summer of 1969, I was nine years old. That Christmas, I asked for a guitar because I wanted to be like Johnny Cash. I still want to be like Johnny Cash.” 

The path from liking Cash and ending up recording his first album at Cash’s farm is a winding one that starts like, many musical odysseys, with a guitar. 

Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash were performing in Lexington, Kentucky. So, McNurlin asked his parents if they wanted to go see them perform. They did. 

A couple of weeks before the show, McNurlin called up Cash’s people to see if it was possible that Cash would sign his guitar. 

Rob McNurlin, performing at the Tuesday Night Concert Series in Ironton. (Mark Shaffer | The Ironton Tribune)

“I said ‘Look, I’m a huge Johnny Cash fan. I’ve got an old Martin D-18 guitar. I already had Rambling Jack Elliot sign it. Is there any way Johnny would sign it?’” McNurlin said. Cash’s people told him to ask for, Peggy McKnight, who did the merchandise sales for Cash. “I got there early, early. They were still unloading the trucks.” 

He found McKnight and she said they were going to try to get Cash to sign it. They let McNurlin backstage and told him to hang out with Cash’s guitar tech, Brian Farmer, while he prepped guitars for the show. 

“Johnny Cash had the first black Martin guitar ever made, it was made in the ‘60s. It was a black Martin D-35 they had made for him. It was his main guitar for years,” McNurlin said. “So, Brian pulls out this guitar and says “You want to play Johnny’s guitar?’ So, I got to play it.” 

Right before the show started, McKnight told him to watch the show and leave his guitar with Farmer. She said that when Cash introduces June Carter Cash, he should come backstage again. 

“So, when June starts her part of the show, Johnny comes backstage to take a break,” McNurlin explained. “Peggy stops him. He agrees to sing the guitar, shakes my hand and then plays the guitar for a bit and then gets back on stage. When June Carter Cash comes off the stage, she signed it too.” 

That, it turns out, was not the biggest highlight for McNurlin. 

“After the show, Brian Farmer tells me that anytime there is a show, I can come backstage and hang out with him,” McNurlin said. “So, anytime there was a show within driving range, I would go see Johnny. About the third time, Brian says ‘You know, there may not be a time when you can’t get a hold of me’ and then he hands me a backstage laminate pass.” 

So McNurlin started hanging when he could and struck up a friendship with John Carter Cash, who played rhythm guitar in his dad’s band and would occasionally interact with Johnny Cash. 

“I didn’t know him well, but he would try to make eye contact with everyone in the room and say ‘Hi.’ There were a few times that I got a little one on one with him.” 

One day, McNurlin called up John Carter Cash and asked what the chances were of recording his first album, “Cowboy Boot Heel” at Cash Cabin Studios, where the elder Cash recorded hundreds of songs. 

“He said ‘Yeah, we can do that,’” McNurlin said. “So, I went and did that. And come to find out, it was the first album that John Carter Cash ever produced.”

 Carter Cash, a musician in his own right, has been the producer on 75 records, including producing his mother’s album “Press On,” for which he won a Grammy, and was an associate producer on several of his father’s albums. He has also produced albums by other artists such as Loretta Lynn, Marty Stuart and Brad Paisley. 

“So, I was the test subject there, which was great,” McNurlin said with a laugh. “I still see John Carter Cash every once in a while.” 

Since then, McNurlin has released several recordings including Buffalo Skinners, Lonesome Valley Again, Tent of the Wicked, Rhinestoned, Gospel Guitar, Blood on the Saddle and Blue Nashville Guitar. 

Tent of the Wicked was produced by Kenny Vaughn, the guitarist for Marty Stuart’s band, The Fabulous Superlatives. 

Because of his eclectic taste in music, it is hard to peg McNurlin into a specific category. 

When he started out in 1993, the genre was called alternative country or cow punk and included everyone from Jason and the Scorchers to the Jayhawks. 

“See, therein lies the problem. Although I love the traditional country music, I also love Bob Dylan and Neil Young, but I also love gospel music and Woodie Guthrie and Arlo Guthrie and Rambling Jack Elliot. And I just wanted to play it all, so where are they going to put me?” McNurlin said. “I just say the heck with it, I’m just going 

 to play it. To me it is all the same.” 

The genre is more commonly called Americana now. 

“Yeah, they finally stuck a name on it,” McNurlin said, although that name doesn’t really fit him well, since he is too country for rock and roll and too rock and roll and folky for the Gospel people. “All Americana turned out to be was all the cool songs that couldn’t get on the radio stations.” 

Regardless of what genre he’s in, McNurlin is well-known for putting on a good show and has played many of the fairs, festivals, churches, radio show, TV show and other events in the Tri-State, including playing Ironton aLive’s Tuesday Night Concert series for years. 

“It’s a great place to play,” he said. “Every little town should have something like it.” 

As a musician, he said it doesn’t matter to him if it is an outdoor event, a church or a club. 

“It is the audience that makes the show,” McNurlin said. “If the audience wants to hear some music, it is a great show. That’s what matters, it doesn’t matter to me where it is at.”