Billy Cash Lives!

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

Billy Cash is an Elvis impersonator. From time to time, he dresses in a bedazzled white jumpsuit with a handmade leather belt and sings Elvis Presley songs in front of other people, karaoke-style. Even without the jumpsuit, Cash has the Elvis look-the sideburns, the jet-black hair, the latter-life paunch.

By playing the role of a celebrity, Cash has become one himself. People call to him as he walks Columbus' sidewalks in his everyday clothes: "Hey, Elvis!" Cash waves, smiles. He doesn't mind if they don't know his real name. Sometimes they take pictures with him.

Cash, a 55-year-old Columbus native and former Las Vegas performer, is beloved. He shows up on local stages and in the music videos of Columbus bands. Artists, designers, pastors, families, clothing stores, laptop repair shops, music venues, karaoke companies and record stores rally around Cash, donating their money and services and time-especially their time-to him.

It's not because Cash, whose real name is Billy Burke, can hit every note Elvis hit or perfectly imitate his dance moves or that famous lip curl. Plenty of impersonators are more experienced and polished. People gravitate to Cash because of his wide-eyed approach to life. In his mind, there are no barriers.

"He imagines something, and then it becomes reality," says Cash's friend and pastor Jeff Cannell. "Billy would be screwed if he lived in Cleveland. Columbus is a very kind town. They love seeing someone experience the joy of living their dreams."

Billy Cash is running late.

"Hey, Billy. Where are you?" Cannell asks on his cellphone at Central Vineyard's offices on Indianola Avenue. "OK. Thank you, buddy. All right. I love you, Billy."

It's unexpected-even a little jarring-how often Cannell expresses love for his friend. "There's not a conversation where I don't tell him I love him," Cannell says. "That's a unique thing he experiences in the church that he doesn't experience other places. He'll take the bus all the way up here just to hang out for two minutes and hug everyone. People need that. The church is supposed to be a safe place where people can be accepted and loved unconditionally."

Cash and Cannell are buds-like an unexpected but endearing pair from a Judd Apatow bromance movie. They spend a lot of time together. In fact, the first time I spoke to Cannell on the phone, he was on his way to see Cash. They text each other or call throughout the day; before bed, Cash texts him, "The Lord and Billy Cash say bless you." They run errands together, and Cash, ever the gentleman, tips his hat to the ladies around town: "Hello, ma'am. Good to see you." Cannell takes him to the dentist and helps him get his Supplemental Security Income, which the government pays to people with disabilities and limited resources. Sometimes Cash helps Cannell with yard work.

"I had this bush I couldn't begin to get out," Cannell says. "He just muscled it out. He's like The Hulk."

The two met at the Clintonville Resource Center in 2011, after Cash returned home from his 10-year stint in Vegas. Cannell helped him download a short documentary that a filmmaker had put together about his Cash's in Vegas, then burn it onto DVDs to sell at local record stores and Yeah, Me Too, the coffee shop a couple of doors down from Cannell's office in south Clintonville. As their friendship grew, Cash moved into the Vineyard offices and lived there for two years. He still has a locker there with crafting materials, and the walls often become his personal bulletin board, covered in his artwork and to-do lists. Cash takes the bus to see Cannell and other Vineyard staffers several times a week from the apartment he now rents in northeast Columbus near the Milo Arts Center.

When Cash finally arrives the morning I come to visit, he bounds in like he owns the place. His movements are big, exaggerated. He's tall-well over 6 feet-and dressed in white sneakers, jeans and a camouflage hunting shirt with a small Yuengling logo in the corner.

"What happened to your face, buddy?" Cannell asks, pointing to a fresh scratch.

"You should have seen him!" Cash quips, then breaks into a high-pitched, head-turning laugh that Cannell aptly describes as a mix of Scooby Doo and Rosco P. Coltrane from "The Dukes of Hazzard," one of Cash's favorite TV shows. He has a thing for crime dramas from the '70s and '80s: "Starsky & Hutch," "Simon & Simon," "MacGyver," "The A-Team," "Knight Rider," "Magnum, P.I." and others. When Cash lived in Clintonville, he took on the role of neighborhood patrolman, keeping an eye out for criminals and making sure all the businesses on Indianola locked their doors. Cannell claims that, for the two years Cash lived in Central Vineyard's headquarters, there were no break-ins on Indianola Avenue between Weber Road and North Broadway.

"Billy would ask local law enforcement about something, they'd give him a description, and he'd find who did it and call the police," Cannell says. "It's basically neighborhood watch on steroids."

Cash knows whether someone is from the neighborhood or not because he's constantly walking the streets-more than anybody from the neighborhood watch groups. "I've never seen them out like me," says Cash, who's been known to embody an alter ego, Blade, while patrolling. "I never see them out at all. And the cops never see them out. This is what the cops gave me," he says, lifting his camo shirt to reveal a silver badge that reads, "Security Enforcement Officer."

Many businesses embrace Cash, but others have found his presence to be a little overwhelming. Not everyone takes his Blade role seriously, and not every local shop appreciates the way he ambitiously hawks his steady stream of new musical recordings. And some days, as he takes the COTA bus to the Whetstone Library, record stores and other preferred haunts, he has angry outbursts. Cannell and Cash's social worker help him navigate those rocky relationships, teaching him how to deal with conflict in a healthy way. So do Chelsea Kay and her family.

Cash is a regular at the Kay home in south Clintonville. "He needed family-people that cared about him," says Kay, who's also part of the Vineyard community. "When he stopped by, we'd make space for him-hang out, watch a movie. He loves to make CDs and posters. My eldest son spent a lot of time creating album covers with him and coming up with ideas for movies together. He gets so excited about projects. He has tons of enthusiasm."

Cash has had a hard life. He was born and raised in Columbus near Hudson Avenue and attended Central High School, but he doesn't like to talk about his childhood. "Forget my family," he says. When I ask him if he has any good memories from when he was young, he says, "Not many." The church and others in the Columbus music scene have become his family. He's constantly recording songs and making CDs for them. When an assistant pastor at Vineyard went through a serious health crisis in the spring, Cash recorded an album of songs he called My Lord and My King to raise money for the ailing pastor's family.

Cash collects Christmas gifts for his friends year-round, then takes on the role of "Santa Cash" around the holidays. Last year, Kay's kids were with her ex-husband for Christmas. After realizing Cash would likely be alone, too, she invited him over. Santa Cash had thoughtful presents for her and each of her kids.

"He relates to me in such a sweet way," Kay says. "He can make people nervous because he's so big, and he doesn't know the appropriate social interaction all the time … but he truly cares about people."

Back in the '80s and '90s, Billy Cash would sometimes perform with local bands. Nashville songwriter and Columbus ex-pat Tim Easton used to bring Cash onstage to sing with Easton's old band, the Haynes Boys. During one show in the Brewery District, Cash sang Elvis' "Little Sister."

"Once he took the stage, the whole room was captivated," says Easton, who also remembers Cash critiquing the Haynes Boys' approach to the song. "He could tell from the way I was doing it that I was doing the Dwight Yoakam version. And he was right. He busted me."

When Keida Mascaro was a teenager in the '80s, he saw Billy Cash play with some of those Columbus bands before leaving town in 1992 for New York City and then Los Angeles. Mascaro returned to Columbus for grad school several years ago, and a couple of years after he returned, he noticed Billy Cash walking around Clintonville and couldn't believe his eyes. Mascaro talked to Cash about doing a short film together, but it never materialized. Then, about a year ago, Cash moved near the Milo Arts Center, where Mascaro lives. They've been pals ever since.

"We've become really, really close," says Mascaro, whom Cash calls "Bub." When Mascaro asks his dog, "Where's Billy?" the dog scrambles to the window. (Cash has a way with animals and knows all the dogs in the neighborhoods he walks; he sometimes calls himself "The Beastmaster.")

Earlier this year, Cash asked Mascaro to be his manager, and Mascaro agreed. He plans to start a Kickstarter campaign so Cash can purchase a Sundial Suit just like the one Elvis wore, and possibly fund a professionally recorded album. They talk often about plans for the future-a fall concert, perhaps with a country theme. Cash says the first hurdle to clear is getting dentures so he can enunciate and sing the way he wants to sing.

People have different reasons for watching Billy Cash sing. For some, it's the spectacle. Others come to a performance purely out of support for a friend. For other fans, it's something much deeper.

"I would classify him as outsider art," Mascaro says. "You have to understand it to fully appreciate it. Billy is one of a kind. I wouldn't look at his act the same way I'd look at a Vegas-style Elvis impersonator. He attaches himself to that impersonation the way a kid would fantasize about an icon. Whereas an adult is an actor, and it's a gig-it's not about fantasy. Thinking about it that way, it becomes so much more interesting.

"He's nothing like other Elvis impersonators, and that's what's so beautiful about it," he continues. "If you just go to a show casually and don't get into his story-if you're not curious-you probably won't get it."

Jerry DeCicca, who used to lead Columbus band the Black Swans before moving near Austin, Texas, is one of Billy Cash's biggest fans. He even hired Cash to star in a music video for a Black Swans song a few years ago. DeCicca finds Cash compelling because of the human, almost feral quality he brings to his performances.

"I'm a huge Elvis Presley fan, and I'm a huge fan of outsider artists. I'm not a fan of people who remind me of Target and Applebee's," DeCicca says. "Billy Cash is one of the few fascinating artists left. To me, what Billy Cash does is the most obvious thing in the world, yet I think most people who see him don't get it. I take what he does a lot more seriously than a lot of people do. He's making conscious choices. It's really important to him every time he's on stage. He's never going through the motions. He's creative, interpretive, and he's doing it in a natural way that's true to himself. I think that Billy is actually revealing himself more than those other impersonators are."

Cannell says Cash understands his own success in light of being true to himself, which is an uncommonly mature approach. When I ask Cash what he loves most in life, instead of pausing and contemplating, he responds quickly in an almost tossed-off manner, as if the answer is so obvious: "Life itself."

"You can be a sophisticated, well-educated, financially successful narcissist," Cannell says, "or you can be not so educated, on government assistance, rejected by your family, and yet be kind to others, have joy and a servant's heart. What's success?"

Billy Cash's local-celebrity status and community support aren't all that hard to understand, really. Whether he's making home recordings of himself singing over karaoke tracks he grabbed from YouTube or serenading an unsuspecting woman in the crowd at Ace of Cups with an off-kilter version of "Fools Rush In," music is his muse, his lifeblood. And when someone is that dedicated to an art form, it's captivating.

"Like any performer, sometimes you see somebody, and it just means more to them," DeCicca says. "Billy found music, and music is what keeps Billy healthy. I don't see that as being any different from me or any other musician I know who is creative and whose primary concern is self-expression."

Dave Casto runs Excess Productions, which supplies venues around town with karaoke and trivia nights, and he mans the controls when Billy Cash performs. "He's getting so much out of it-so much more than the rest of us," Casto says. "He's not doing it to try to get laid or get drunk or impress his friends. He's doing it because that's what Billy does-that's his thing. You gotta admire that. Hell, it makes me jealous. I wish I had the balls to have a me-in-concert night. We should all just go out and approach life with that gusto."

"All of us creative types have that person inside us," Tim Easton says. "We all have art shows on our parents' refrigerators, but at some point the encouragement stops, and then we stop. Some people just keep going."