Walking the line: South Fayette resident draws on Johnny Cash for musical inspiration
A musical dark cloud appeared for Brad Bendis as he performed several years ago at the late, great Farmhouse Coffee in Peters Township.
“All of a sudden, right in the middle of the show, my voice completely gave out on me,” the South Fayette Township resident said. “I didn’t get it back for about a month, and it never got back to the point where it was. It became a little bit more gravelly, deeper.”
And so the silver lining:
“That’s when I started having the courage to try more Johnny Cash.”
The unmistakable bass-baritone of the Man in Black is difficult to emulate, even for vocalists with naturally low voices. Bendis, though, is able to pull it off remarkably well.
“I just attribute it to years of being in my car, driving and having his CDs playing, and singing along with them,” he said. “His is the most comfortable for me to sing. Trying to sing like anybody else, that’s tough for me.”
You wouldn’t know it from listening to a Brad Bendis show, during which he plays songs by a wide variety of other artists, from Jim Croce to Tom Petty to Pink Floyd. His talents have earned him the opportunity to play regularly at venues around the South Hills and beyond, including a regular gig every second Friday at Shelby’s Station in Bridgeville.
Bendis’ musical pursuits started when he was about 14, and Mr. Cash was his inspiration.
“There was something about him that was just different than any other kind of music I ever heard,” Bendis explained. “Everyone else was trying to sing real high and pretty and everything, but he had that really rough, deep voice. He sounded like a man.”
Cash died in September 2003, and Bendis got his first guitar that November.
“It was a long time before I could make any decent sounds on it,” he admitted. “But I was determined to become the best that I could, and I brought the guitar everywhere with me. I brought it to school with me. Then I became known as the guy with the guitar.
People actually started calling me ‘Johnny Cash’ as like a joke, and then it caught on,” he said about his experiences at South Fayette Township High School, from which he graduated in 2007. “I have some people that still don’t know my real name. They call me ‘Johnny Cash,’ still.”
Bendis cites Bruce Springsteen and Glen Campbell as some of his other musical influences, along with the prolific and often-unpredictable Neil Young.
“He was the opposite of Johnny Cash in a lot ways,” Bendis explained. “He was loud. He had the high-pitched voice and that screaming electric guitar.”
On the local level, another influence is Ted Aiken, a retired Moon Area High School teacher and musician who died of pancreatic cancer in 2013.
“Ted always carried around a big, fat book of songs,” Bendis said. “About half of them were songs that he wrote, many of which he put on CDs and released, but lot of others that he never put on CD, just great songs that he wrote.”
Bendis asked Aiken’s wife, Barbara, for the book, and he is working on arrangements of some of the material with Peters Township resident Jack Breiding for an eventual album.
In doing so, Bendis is following in the footsteps of Cash, whose series of “American Recordings” series of albums during the last decade of his life featured a variety of well-regarded covers.
“Through all the decades, he embraced other artists,” Bendis said. “He never stopped listening to music.”