The time Letterman booked an unknown Johnny Cash tribute act from Montana
Now that David Letterman has said his final goodbye to late night television, nearly all the big A-list stars have shared what Dave and his show meant to them.
For us viewers, Dave helped us settle down for the night and give us some laughs before we fell asleep.
For people in the entertainment industry, Dave opened the gate between Hollywood and regular people, long before websites and/or magazines such as TMZ or Star Magazine burst it wide open.
But while he has talked to thousands of notable celebrities, musicians, artists and politicians over the years, only a handful can claim Dave Letterman changed their life.
Great Falls-based musician Merle Peterson can say it, and he means it.
In an interview with Big Sky State Buzz, Peterson, a Johnny Cash impersonator in the band the Cold Hard Cash Show, said looking back at that opportunity that Letterman gave him and his band, was something that might not ever happen again to someone like him.
Peterson’s journey to the Ed Sullivan Theater began in 2007.
The Cold Hard Cash Show had been told that they’d be opening for Willie Nelson at the 4th of July Celebration in Choteau. It was Letterman who brought Nelson to Choteau and Peterson’s band was set to open for him.
However, when Willie got there, he said that his son would be opening for him, which Peterson said suited them just fine.
“His son is fantastic, so I didn’t mind that at all,” he said.
The following year, The Cold Hard Cash Show was playing at a hole-in-the-wall bar in Choteau. Afterward, they heard people talking about how they saw Mr. Letterman watching them perform.
Soon thereafter, a producer with “The Late Show” called and asked if they’d be interested in performing for them on Nov. 18, 2008.
Peterson says he was floored at the offer and said they couldn’t believe it at first.
“I didn’t think it was real. We were a tribute band and you didn’t see a lot of tribute bands play TV shows like that,” he said. “He gave us that shot but it was more than what we were even prepared for, we had only been playing for 18 months and we weren’t working as musicians at the time.”
Peterson said they knew they had to do the show, though, because it might be the greatest opportunity they’d ever get as a band.
“You know, once he gave us that opportunity, without saying it directly, I think he was trying to say to me that he liked our act and he said, ‘Now I gave you this chance, do something with it.’”
Peterson said once the show came around, he couldn’t believe how nervous he was, but still he found a way to cope with it.
“I would say I had gotten over regular nerves with just playing a show, but that was a new kind of fear that I hadn’t really had,” he said. “I try not to consciously think about it too much, but everyone knows all of the popular culture that was changed by people like Elvis and the Beatles and the others that appeared on that very stage. Instead of thinking about that, though, I though, ‘I know how to play for 400 people, so I will play for them because I don’t know how to play for 4 million people, but the truth is there is no difference. You just play as well as you can and communicate with the people.”
Peterson said he found it cool that not only did they get to play, they were on the same show as Jack Hanna, who lives outside Kalispell. That show also featured the Firs Lady of France, Carla Bruni, who also had her own new album to promote.
“Miss Carla Bruni is devastatingly lovely and she’s basically a princess,” he said. “She sang her own stuff and they bumped her to the online extras and we got our showcase. Which, when you bump the First Lady of France for a Johnny Cash band you saw play at the Corral, that’s another cool thing Letterman did. He could do that. It was something he did for me, for all of us.”
The band played “Folsom Prison Blues,” which Peterson said they played because they knew it was one of the top songs that people recognized from Johnny Cash.
He said it was the first song he ever learned to play, it was the first song they ever played in front of an audience and that even if they lost their nerves on stage, they thought there’s no way they could mess up that song.
“ I wasn’t going to use this opportunity to play some obscure B-side I liked,” he said. “I wanted to communicate Johnny Cash to that massive audience of people and that was the one song I knew people associated with him. Plus it was easy to be overwhelmed. It was almost like an out-of-body experience. I was hovering outside of myself and it was like I could see myself playing that, but it didn’t seem real. I just never had those kinds of dreams, but then I realized, you know, we could make a go of this.”
After getting on the show, Peterson said they started getting more offers to do shows in Great Falls, around Western Montana and eventually across the northwest.
He said he and drummer Fel Torres, along with the various bass players they’ve had over the years have all been able to work solely on their music, in part because of their performance on Letterman.
Since then they’ve also opened for many big acts such as Eric Church, Luke Bryan, Montgomery Gentry, Big and Rich, Soul Asylum, Everclear, POD, John Oats, James Taylor and Shawn Colvin. He said they’ve played for people such as John Mayer, Katy Perry and Justin Timberlake, also.
“It’s crazy, they’re watching me and I’m the show. I love music from all these folks, but they’re all just regular people in the business, at the end of the day.”
Peterson added that last year they’ve played in 22 states and multiple music festivals. They’ve played at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and the Daytona Beach Bike rally, among others. They play at least 120 shows a year both in Montana and outside of it.
He said one exciting performance this year will be their returning to the House of Blues in Las Vegas, where they’ll be playing in the main performance hall for the first time ever.
Peterson said if he ever got the chance he’d thank Dave for kick starting their career in a way that perhaps no one else could have at that time.
“Dave’s meant a lot to me, my family, and the musicians around me,” he said. “Now that he’s retiring, I don’t know if anyone will ever get a chance like the one we got. Dave had a lot of clout, he could do whatever he wanted. He wanted to have us on and they booked a week of tribute acts to create context for us to be there. I don’t think Jimmy Kimmel or any of the other late night hosts can do that. Maybe eventually if they stick around long enough, but Dave did that.”
Peterson added that he’s positive that if they had never been on Letterman, there’s no way they’d be still performing music. He said he’d likely have become a school teacher, and eventually probably would have stopped playing music entirely.
“You know, I don’t think it would have been the right decision, either,” he said. “I think I would have been very unhappy.”
Finally, Peterson said he’s thrilled to perform here in Great Falls again this year, as they don’t get the chance to do that much anymore. He said they’ll be playing in Gibson Park on June 28 during Alive@5.
He said it’ll be a blast to play here again and see some old friends.
“Sometimes I don’t know if a lot of people in Great Falls realize we’re not playing there because we play elsewhere in the country. I think we’re one of maybe three bands from Montana that tours. We come back only once or twice a year now, when we can, but we’re always greeted with a great crowd. It’ll be fun to be back and we hope people can pack the park to come see us.”