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NewsNew York

Johnny Cash's legacy lives on at birthday show

Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash Credit: Getty

It's rare that someone who has been dead for more than six years gets hundreds of people to attend his birthday party.

Then again, Johnny Cash isn't just anybody.

Since 2005, Brooklyn musician Alex Battles has been playing to sold-out crowds at his annual Johnny Cash Birthday Bash, singing hits and rarities and showing rare clips from the Man in Black's movie and TV appearances.

amNewYork spoke with Battles.

When did you start throwing these birthday parties?
The first one was in 2005, at a bar called Lilly's in Red Hook that no longer exists. The bar owner and I thought it would be fun. Johnny had just passed away in late 2003. It was the first big show I put on.

Why is Cash so popular in Brooklyn, which is not exactly a hotbed of country music?
Johnny was hard to classify. People weren't sure if he was country or rock 'n' roll. He was whatever he wanted to be. There's an honesty in his songwriting and in his life that connects with people. Obviously, the rebel image appeals to folks, too. He's a badass, but deep down, he has a really big heart.

What's the biggest misperception about him?
Every year, I have to fight [using] the picture of him giving the middle finger. Everybody loves it, but it's his birthday — he'd be happy, he wouldn't be flicking people off. That's just one part of him. He has lots of love songs and sad songs and tough ass-kicking songs too. If you like any kind of music, I can find you a Johnny Cash song you'll like.

What's your favorite Cash song to play?
"Give My Love to Rose." I love the narrative — it's a story about a guy who?s never going to get to see the love of his life again.

If you go: The Johnny Cash 79th Birthday Bash is at The Bell House on Saturday at 8 p.m. 149 Seventh St., Gowanus, 718-643-6510, $20.

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