Johnny Cash’s grandson Thomas Gabriel comes full circle

Credit: Diane Sterk

He looks surprisingly like his famous grandfather, especially when he sings one of Johnny Cash’s big hits like “Ring of Fire”, but Thomas Gabriel has a style all his own. And it took him almost 45 years to find it.

Music was a focal point as he grew up, it seemed natural that it was part of his future. But a series of detours would take Gabriel in another direction. He has since made the long journey home, battling a long drug and alcohol addiction that led to ten years in prison. Now, 15 years after the death of his grandfather, Thomas Gabriel hasn’t just changed his life to forge his own path in music, he honors Cash’s legacy every time he has it. opportunity. His most recent opportunity came with a performance at Folsom Prison, some 50 years after John Cash recorded his legendary live album there. Gabriel describes it as one of the greatest experiences of his life.

His story began all those years ago as a young boy spending a lot of time on buses and planes while accompanying Johnny Cash and June Carter on tour.

“I was the first grandchild,” explains Gabriel. “My mother (Kathy) was very young, only 16, when she had me. So the grandparents, as they often do, stepped in to help.

Life on the road led to an early appreciation of music and by the time he was 11 Gabriel was already learning to play the guitar. But it was also early on that he started showing signs of something else, a potential substance abuse problem. Her grandfather tried to help her.

“He was the one who made me go to Alcoholics Anonymous the first time,” says Gabriel. “He had known since the age of 13 that I had the same addiction as him.

By the same addiction, he refers to Johnny Cash’s well-known struggle with drugs at certain points in his career.

Perhaps this is why when Gabriel was around 21 and shared tapes of some songs he had written and recorded, Cash tried to steer him away from the music.

“He said the writing was good, your voice was good, but you had to work on it,” recalls Gabriel. “In the meantime, I want you to leave her alone and get a back-up plan. “

This back-up plan involved the application of the law.

“He wanted me to be a cop. About a month later, I was at the academy. And I did it for the next eight years.

At that point, he started having problems.

“I took the pills. I worked nights, tried to run a business during the day, played music here and there, and started taking pills to stay awake.

After taking pills to stay awake, he would take pills to fall asleep.

“And because I was doing that, besides drinking, I ran into the ground and did some really stupid things. I was arrested for domestic violence. So I quit my job.

He started taking more drugs, followed my other arrests, then ended up in front of a judge who had had enough. Gabriel went to jail, got out, then came back, and finally served ten years before being released for good. But even after all this, freedom was not easy, nor was it possible to stay clean and sober.

Then, about three years ago, Gabriel got a phone call that changed everything. He was staying in a motel, with drugs and vodka handy, thinking about the drastic action he could take next, when he got a call from his mom telling him that a guy was trying to get him. join. Shortly after, he got a call from Brian Oxley.

Gabriel describes what happened.

“The phone rings and the guy asked if it was Thomas, I said it was, then he said, ‘I think you’re going to die. “

Gabriel admits it caught him off guard.

“That’s the first thing he said to me. Not “hello” or “how are you” or “sorry to call so late”. The first thing he said was “I think you’re going to die”.

It certainly caught his attention and Gabriel agreed to a meeting the next day. Oxley, is a retired businessman who grew up with missionary parents in Japan. He had never heard of Johnny Cash until a few years earlier and through his studies he had grown to admire the spiritual side of Cash. He had recently purchased Cash’s old farm in Bon Aqua, Tennessee and has since turned it into a popular attraction, with the Storyteller’s Museum nearby. Both honor Cash and host live musical performances and festivals.

By this time, however, he had researched Cash’s family, heard that Gabriel was struggling and wanted to help.

Gabriel says during this reunion they talked for a while and then Oxley asked what he ultimately wanted out of life.

“I said I just wanted to get back to the music. I went to jail, I wrote all these songs, they don’t do anything, but they sit there and neither do I. I want to go back to my music.

Oxley offered to help, but only if Gabriel agreed to go to rehab. Several weeks after the start of his stay, Oxley came to see him.

“He said you were okay, you were better, but here’s what I want you to do,” recalls Gabriel. “You have one week left, but when you’re done here I want you to go to a long-term facility and give it three months. “

Unhappy with the continuation of rehab, but faced with no other option, Gabriel agreed. After three months, Oxley called and again asked her to stay for another three months.

“At this point, nothing shocked me,” says Gabriel. “So I stayed for another three months. Then the next thing you know is I work there, then I give advice there, and all of a sudden it’s been a year.

At the end of the year, Oxley took him home to talk about music and show him a song called “”. It struck a real chord with Gabriel.

“It was basically what I had just experienced. It’s about a guy who does stupid things, does drugs, goes to jail, is gone for a while, comes back, tries to do well, then goes back to jail.

He recorded the song and even made a music video of it. This would lead to Gabriel’s first independent album titled “A Long Way Home”. More than half of the songs, including the title song, were written by Gabriel.

The album sparked a string of shows at Bon Aqua’s Hideaway Farm, then other venues, followed by a three-week tour of Ireland and, in October, a performance at Folsom Prison in California. . The visit took place 50 years after Johnny Cash recorded his historic live album there.

Credit: Diane Sterk

Amid tightened security, Gabriel says that only he and his guitarist, Derek Toa, have been allowed to perform. They did two shows, first for a group of inmates who had their own classical guitar lessons and were delighted to see Gabriel. They enjoyed it throughout the show and waited for autographs afterward. Then Gabriel and Toa walked over to the group waiting for the second show. These detainees had been in Folsom for a long time and never returned home.

“We walked in and no one said a word,” said Gabriel. “They were looking down on us and it was a whole different vibe.” He introduced himself and was quickly interrupted by an older inmate sitting in the front row.

The man said he had been there when Johnny Cash performed in 1968. He had just turned 18 and had been sentenced to life in prison. He had been in ‘the hole’ during the show so he didn’t see Cash, but he heard him.

As Gabriel expressed how honored he was to be there, the inmate replied, “I’ll tell you if you’re good, I’ll tell you if you’re welcome here, and I’ll tell you if you can ever come back.”

As he began to sing, Gabriel found himself periodically watching the guy for a status check.

“At the end of each song, I would give her a look like ‘do we still have a thumbs up?’ he says. “With each song he got into it more and more and started to smile and at the end came and said I was welcome to come back.”

Gabriel says he was particularly struck by the way inmates reacted to a song he wrote while in prison called “Cell”.

“I wrote it when I was in solitary confinement in some of the darkest times of my life. One guy said it gives them a voice because nobody understands what it’s like to be in a place like this. They said it showed them they had to keep going.

His visit to the prison not only showed him how his music can help others, but gave new meaning to an old song.

Credit: Angie Brown

“All my life, Folsom Prison has been a song, that’s all. But going on stage at Folsom Prison singing “Folsom Prison Blues” for the people who occupy Folsom Prison was surreal. And these guys loved it!

As he works to design his future, his grandfather is still close to his heart. Even towards the end of his life, he was still trying to help Gabriel get on the right track.

“There was a time, just before he passed away, when I was really hurt and I hurt him. I had taken some of his things and he knew it. He called me to his office and asked me if I knew anything about it and I said to him, yes I did. He asked me what I was going to do about it. Not about what I did to her, but what are you going to do with ‘you’ in other words. I told him I didn’t know.

He thinks he would be proud of himself now. Gabriel has returned home, whether he’s singing his own songs or some of his favorites from Johnny Cash.

“I can express myself, which is very therapeutic for me and it helps others hear my message. At the same time, I can sing a bunch of my grandfather’s songs and pay homage to him, which feels good because in life he hasn’t seen much from me.

Her life is now focused on staying positive.

“From the moment I wake up until the moment I go to bed, I make sure to keep everything as positive as possible. As long as I do this, the next day is always a little better.

Gabriel is working on his second album, while preparing for an almost uninterrupted touring schedule for at least the next six to seven months.

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