On the Beat

Double Life: A firefighter who walks the line

David Gresham is the lead guitarist for the Johnny Cash tribute band Johnny Folsom 4.
David Gresham is the lead guitarist for the Johnny Cash tribute band Johnny Folsom 4. WILLA STEIN

When he’s not putting out fires with the Raleigh Fire Department, David Greshman plays guitar in Johnny Folsom 4 – a peerless tribute band to the late, great Johnny Cash. His economical and precise evocation of Luther Perkins, Cash’s longtime lead guitarist, helps Johnny Folsom 4 conjure up the spirit of the music.

“Gresh is part of why the band is so good,” said Johnny Folsom 4 frontman David Burney. “A lot of players get caught up in wanting to show off. But he’s a great musician with no ego, and he has Luther Perkins’ old parts down perfectly.”

His story

Gresham, 43, grew up playing guitar with his father, who taught him to play at a young age. Music was always part of his family’s life, going back to his father playing in a group with his two sisters called the Gresham Trio.

Once Gresham grew up and left home, however, music went on the back burner because of work and family obligations. That all changed when Gresham heard the roots-rock supergroup the Yayhoos’ first album in 2001, which got him back to playing music again even though he did not own a working guitar at the time.

“That album was a game-changer for me,” Gresham said. “It rocked as good as anything I’d ever heard – the best of Small Faces, The Band, the Stones and Waylon (Jennings) all rolled back into one. That record put music back on the fire for me.”

What pays the bills

After his school days ended, Gresham worked a series of construction jobs while raising a family before deciding that firefighting seemed like a more rewarding profession. Joining the Raleigh Fire Department 16 years ago was “the best decision of my life,” Gresham said, although the job can be scary.

“We’re trained to know what to look for and what’s possible to do regarding saving a life,” Gresham said. “We take calculated risks, but we only risk a lot to save a lot. What’s actually most frightening to me are car wrecks where you’re on the side of the road with traffic whizzing by. Once I was putting my medical kit back on the truck on the side of I-540 when somebody wiped out some cones we’d set up just a few feet away. That’s probably the scaredest I’ve been.”

Most of the time, however, what firefighters encounter is less scary than strange. For example, there was the time Gresham’s crew went on a medical call to a house where the resident had a kangaroo living with him.

“It was held back by a wooden baby gate,” Gresham said. “Dogs running around everywhere, too. Yeah, going into people’s homes and seeing how they live is the most ‘interesting’ part of the job. But most times we’re called, it’s the worst day of someone’s life because they only call 911 when something bad is going on. We take pride in making a bad situation better, whether it’s the middle of the day or the middle of the night.”

What feeds the soul

Gresham was already into the fireman portion of his career when he got back to playing music. Johnny Folsom 4 grew out of his and Burney’s previous honky-tonk band, the Swingin’ Johnsons, which always got the best response with covers of Cash songs. So they started Johnny Folsom 4 as an alter ego, in which guise they’d open their own shows with a set of Cash covers.

It didn’t take long for Johnny Folsom 4 to eclipse the Swingin’ Johnsons. So they retired that band to follow in the footsteps of The Man In Black, quickly earning a good-sized local following. Later this month, they’ll close out the three-night SPITTLEFest roots-rock festival in the Saturday night headlining slot.

Gresham’s father died in 1986. But all these years later, Gresham still uses his dad’s 1964-vintage amplifier.

“The basic template for my guitar sound stems from hearing my dad play a Telecaster guitar through this old Fender Princeton Reverb amp,” Gresham said. “That, and also hearing ‘Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison.’ We don’t just do the songs everybody already knows and loves, but more obscure ones, too. Johnny Cash recorded over 1,500 songs, and we’ve probably played 120. So we’ve barely scratched the surface.”