Penn State College of Arts and Architecture
Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State

‘Once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the man he was’

By Cale Blakely
Left: Debbie Horton stands for a picture with Johnny Cash in the 80s. Right: Debbie Horton plays the guitar on stage.

Johnny Cash guitarist Debbie Horton reminisces about real ‘Man in Black’

There are defining moments in our life for all of us, fleeting instances that can forever alter the trajectory of our lives.

One such moment for Debbie Horton, lead guitarist on “Johnny Cash – The Official Concert Experience,” is having the chance to perform alongside Cash and being the only woman to ever play lead guitar for the Man in Black himself.

Horton grew up listening to Johnny Cash and quickly became an admirer of his music. Meeting Cash for the first time on July 16, 1972, at only 12 years old, he inspired her to pick up the guitar and eventually she became the Virginia representative of his fan club.

After giving a note to Cash backstage at one of his concerts, asking to perform, he brought her out of the crowd to play guitar for him, and the two did a rendition of his song “Big River.”

In an audio clip from the concert, Cash called to her in the audience, asking, “Debbie come play the guitar, will you?" And history was made.

In a Center for the Performing Arts interview, Horton reminisced on that night. “He was so sweet, so nice. He really loved his fans and the people who appreciated his music,” she said.

Horton’s career is powerful in its own right, having performed her show, “Branson on the Road,” all throughout the United States, Canada and Europe over the past 20 years. Horton has also been a singer, songwriter and disc jockey, furthering her status in the music industry.

It’s this longtime experience and personal connection with Cash that led to her playing guitar once again alongside her idol.

“It was very important for the estate to do this correctly. Auditions were held all over the country,” Horton said.

The show consists of never-before-seen footage of Johnny Cash, played alongside a five-piece band accompanying the projections, in an incredibly unique, synced performance. The musicians and footage combine to create the feeling of a live show, a performance the youth of today may never have had the chance to see otherwise.

Horton recalled speaking to a young woman after one show, with the woman brought to tears over the opportunity.

“She got to experience what it would be like to see him live, something she never considered possible before then,” Horton said.

In addition to the musical aspects, various stories and moments from his life are played out, along with the people whose life he changed along the way. For Horton, this is especially meaningful, capturing the prolific life of a man who inspired her to become the person she is today.

“He could be a preacher, a statesman, a rebel and anything else he wanted to be. I don’t know anybody other than Johnny who could embody all those traits and still make people love him,” Horton said. “This show is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the man he was.”

“Johnny Cash — The Official Concert Experience” will be at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 20, in Eisenhower Auditorium. Visit https://cpa.psu.edu/events/johnny-cash-official-concert-experience for more information and to purchase tickets.

Cale Blakely is a communications intern for the Center for the Performing Arts.