Thomas Gabriel Carries the Johnny Cash Legacy to Mystic Island Casino

By MONIQUE M. DEMOPOULOS | Dec 23, 2019
Photo by: Katie Murphy (Left to right) Toa, Gabriel and Colucci perform ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ at the Mystic Island Casino on Dec. 20.

Little Egg Harbor — “Let me guess. You were expecting me to be 6-4 with slicked back hair, weren’t you?” laughed a rugged Thomas Gabriel, who certainly has not adopted his legendary grandfather Johnny Cash’s showmanship style. Gabriel and his guitarist, Derek Toa, performed an acoustic set at the Mystic Island Casino the night of Friday, Dec. 20.

Local musicians John Colucci, Josh Werner, Jeff Propert and JP Fid opened the evening with an assortment of classic rock and bluegrass tributes. Then Gabriel and Toa delivered what the audience pined for: Johnny Cash classics, but not only those. Interspersed throughout were Gabriel’s more contemporary-sounding originals.

Among the audience was local musician Jimmy Brogan. “I tried to finish my set early to get here,” he said. “This is pretty cool … a little piece of rock royalty.”

During the opening act, Gabriel shared with friends over dinner that continuing his family legacy through his own music is his priority, not being “Johnny Cash II.” Colucci was among those at the table. Colucci is the frontman of local band Folsom68, which embodies Johnny Cash’s band during the period of 1958-1972. Colucci’s mother, Josephine, overwhelmed the table with a bounty of home-cooked Italian fare. “This makes me miss my grandma’s manicotti,” Gabriel said with a smile. He recalled touring with Colucci in NYC last summer. “This little Italian woman (Josephine) opens the trunk of her car, and it’s just filled with trays of food.”

Gabriel was born in California, but soon after, his mother fled an abusive marriage and brought her son to Tennessee, where she had the support of her father, Johnny Cash. It goes without saying, music became an integral part of Gabriel’s life. “‘What are you going to do when you grow up?’ was never a question for me,” said Gabriel, who explained he was raised on the road with his grandfather from 1978 to 1994. “I’ve been playing all my life,” he shared. “And we used to come to Asbury Park all the time.”

After he got into some mischief as a teenager, Gabriel’s grandmother, Vivian, grew increasingly concerned about him living on the road. “I definitely share addictive traits with my grandfather, and my Grandma Vivian saw that,” he explained. Vivian Liberto was Cash’s first wife and mother to his four daughters. Cash’s struggle with addiction played a role in their divorce though they remained friends and, according to Gabriel, shared equal influence on and compassion for their grandson. Even Cash, who had long since cleaned up his act, expressed concern after Gabriel was expelled from school. “I’m not going to say I got kicked out of school,” he chuckled. “Let’s just say they asked me to leave. They also asked me not to come back.”

When Gabriel was 22, he recorded his first EP in his grandfather’s studio. “My grandpa rejected my EP because I had been arrested,” Gabriel recalled. With hopes of setting Gabriel on the straight-and-narrow, Cash asked him to consider becoming a police officer. Though Gabriel followed his grandfather’s advice, it did not save him from the desperate throes of addiction.

During those eight years, he explained, “I went through a divorce and got hooked on pills, just like my grandpa had. Then I got in more trouble and had to resign from the police force.” Cash, who understood his grandson’s struggle, tried to encourage him to commit to a healthy lifestyle and recovery program. Unfortunately, like most suffering with addiction, Gabriel had to hit bottom before seeing a way out. Yet, even in his darkest days, Gabriel recalled the unconditional love and support of his grandfather, who never turned his back on him. Cash died in 2003.

After falling into a downward spiral, Gabriel was incarcerated. “In 2002 I caught some charges. I got eight years. But I didn’t go right away,” he recalled. “I had to mess up and go back a few times. I wound up spending 10 years in prison.” Gabriel described the culture shock he experienced, from having the ultimate freedom, which had almost killed him, to being confined to a cell. However, he knows his time away has given him a new opportunity at life, one he can share with others still suffering or in recovery.

“That was was got me back into music,” he emphasized. “I wrote hundreds of songs.” His former stepfather agreed to send him a guitar to work with, which Gabriel promised to pay him back for when he was released. In addition to writing music, Gabriel said there are two books that saved his life: There Is a River by Edgar Cayce and The Greatest Miracle in the World by O.G. Mandino. “You’re supposed to read ‘The God Memorandum’ chapter 100 times, they say. I’ve probably read it 400 times,” Gabriel said.

Gabriel was released from prison in 2013 and resumed a life of music in the free world. In 2017, he met guitarist Toa and they started touring as the Thomas Gabriel Band. “Derek is the best guitarist I’ve ever been on stage with. Well, you’ll see,” Gabriel said. Toa grew up in Pittsburgh, where he was a classically trained saxophonist, and switched to blues guitar at age 19. “I had really great local teachers in Pittsburgh,” Toa said. “All they care about is making good music. They make up for their lack of business savvy with sheer skill.

“I spent about seven years in Boston, and then one night after a show, I decided to pack up and move to Nashville.” Although Toa seemed a bit disenchanted with the glamor of Nashville, that city is where he met Gabriel. “After a series of odd jobs, I found my way here,” he smiled. When asked to describe the Thomas Gabriel Band, Toa used one word: “incendiary.”

The Thomas Gabriel Band might be simply described as Americana. It is a cross cultural blend of genres, married with the elements of a storied life. Johnny Cash’s heart-rending, baritone voice can be heard through Gabriel like a haunting, ancestral echo. Gabriel also gives credit to his aunt, Roseanne Cash, as well as Rodney Crowell as major inspirations. Being of a later generation, Gabriel is also heavily influenced by alternative rock and metal artists, such as Seether and Helmet. “Helmet is so technical, no one notices. It’s a perfect accident,” Gabriel described. That heavier, industrial sound can be heard in Gabriel’s more raw-sounding original compositions.

Throughout his 50-year career, Gabriel’s grandfather also transcended boundaries in his music. “My grandpa came out in the ’50s. Had he come out nowadays, he might have sounded more like me,” said Gabriel. A good testament to his theory is Cash’s gritty, poignant cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt.” Like his late grandfather, Gabriel touches suffering through his music. “Johnny Cash was dark and crossed all genres. Thomas does that, too,” said friend and team member Donna Roberts, of Maryland.

The Thomas Gabriel Band has toured the world in the last two years. “I’m trying to get everywhere,” Gabriel said. He and Toa are doing an acoustic tour while their other band members (bassist Stephen Hopkins and percussionist Mike Little) are home for the holidays. They begin recording their second album next month.

Gabriel and Toa traveled to New Jersey mainly to perform at a benefit in Freehold on Sunday, Dec. 22. The benefit supported efforts to find a missing woman, Stephanie Parze. As a former officer who has found recovery in music, being part of the benefit was tremendously gratifying for Gabriel. “I’m in awe. I’m stoked they even asked me to do this. A few years ago, they might not have let me in their front yard,” he said. Gabriel has found redemption in making amends through music. “We were talking before about reverse karma. It’s all coming full circle.”

At the Dec. 20 show at the Mystic Island Casino, Gabriel performed such classics as “Sunday Morning Comin’ Down,” “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” and “Ring of Fire.” He was warm and personable, sharing memories attached to those songs. Among his stories, he described having been released from jail for a short spell before his grandfather passed away. “I was lucky I’d just gotten out of jail. My grandma June died while I was still in jail. He (Cash) told me to hang at the house. He was recording his last album. The last song we did from the couch is called “Lord Help Me.” Gabriel then performed that song for his audience.

After hearing adamant requests, he explained to his audience there are two songs he will not sing. “I don’t do ‘Walk the Line’ or ‘Man in Black.’ It’s not because I don’t like those songs. It’s because those songs are meant to be just for him.” The audience applauded respectfully.

“In 2003, my grandpa died,” he said. “It was a sad day for me, and probably for you, too. I know he is in your hearts. That’s why I do this.” To commemorate 50 years since his grandfather’s 1968 Folsom Prison performance, and 15 years since his passing, Gabriel visited Folsom Prison twice last year to perform. “We had to sign a waiver saying they (security guards) wouldn’t help us if something went wrong,” he said, laughing. One elderly inmate told him, “I was here when your grandfather was here in ’68.” Gabriel and the band enjoyed the prison gig “because we were allowed to leave and even asked to come back. Survival of the fittest!”

Gabriel lingered long after his performance ended to exchange thanks and hugs with the audience.

“You can come through the other side of darkness and touch lives. His movement from addiction is such a big deal in our society,” Roberts said, “and Thomas overcomes through his music. His music has has healed a lot of people, too.” She described Gabriel as being “a great writer, a deep thinker and a deep soul,” like his grandfather. “However, I want to push the fact that even though he has that accolade, he is his own artist. He is Thomas,” she asserted. Gesturing over to fans lined up to have their Thomas Gabriel CDs autographed, Roberts said, “but he does have magic around him, just like his grandfather did.”

 

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