Bob Wootton, who played with Johnny Cash for 30 years and toured with Minnesota band Six Mile Grove for 10 years, died on April 9. He was 75.
From 2004-2014, Wootton did three to four extended tours each year with Six Mile Grove. At shows across the country, the band opened with original music and stayed as the backup band for a Cash-only set, which Wootton sang and played guitar for. Band members remember his dedication to his craft and to others.
“He would always say that this isn’t a tribute show. He’d say, ‘It’s my job to keep the sound alive that we created together.’ And so he’d always steer clear of using that word because he felt like he was just continuing the sound,” frontman Brandon Sampson said.
Wootton’s affinity for Cash’s classic sound began in childhood. As he told the band, his mom once called him inside to listen to Cash on the radio, and he fell in love with it. He bought the music icon’s records before he even owned a record player.
“He knew, deep down, that he someday […] needed to meet Johnny Cash and be his guitar player,” Sampson said.
When he finally did, he scored a spot on stage. Rolling Stone reports that in 1968, Wootton attended one of the first shows Cash played without his late guitarist Luther Perkins — trekking from Tulsa, Oklahoma to Fayetteville, Arkansas. Meanwhile, Cash’s band members got stuck in a rain storm and couldn’t make it, so Wootton subbed in. Afterwards, Cash invited him to join the band, which he stayed in through its end in 1997.
Wootton’s Minnesota ties start with a likewise chance encounter. In the early 2000s, he was driving tour buses for various acts. While in Minnesota, he met Sampson and musician Jeff Braegelmann through a mutual acquaintance. From there on out, Sampson and Braegelmann took him out to dinner each time he came back. When Cash died in 2003, Wootton invited them to his funeral.
Over dinner in Tennessee, Wootton expressed a desire to play with a band again. Sampson suggested he try playing with his band, and Wootton accepted. “It was as easy as that,” Sampson said.
Wootton’s first gig with Six Mile Grove was the Cabooze’s “Cash Only” event, a two-night tribute to the music icon. Sampson still remembers their first rehearsal.
“He plugged his guitar in and kicked off some folk and blues and starting singing and playing, and just blew us away. We all looked at each other and were kind of giggling in disbelief of how much of an accomplished musician he was. We ended the song and he looked at us and he said, ‘yeah, that’ll do.’ It was like we’d been playing together for years,” Sampson said.
The sold-out shows went just as smoothly, kicking off a new career phase for Wootton and Six Mile Grove.
“Bob looked at us all and said, ‘We should do this.’ And we were like, ‘Okay, let’s do this.’ So from that point on, we kind of credit him with breathing new life into these five guys from the middle of nowhere in Minnesota,” Sampson said.
On stage, Wootton mesmerized crowds with masterful playing and just the right amount of energy. He focused on connecting with people and giving each band member a chance to shine, Sampson said.
“He taught us about simplicity and taught us about breaking down the barrier between the musician and the audience,” Sampson said. “And he had learned it from one of the best in the business: he stood by Johnny Cash for 30 years, watching him communicate with audiences of all ages.”
His unique right-hand picking style was tough to emulate, said John Wheeler, who plays pedal steel guitar, dobro and accordion for Six Mile Grove.
“He would pick the notes out in a singular manner. He didn’t let stuff run together. And he didn’t overplay things, that was very characteristic of Bob,” Wheeler said. “He kind of followed the philosophy of sometimes the best notes that are played are those that aren’t.”
Some of Wootton’s favorite shows were with audiences that included families and kids, Sampson said.
“He just kind of glowed when the kids would come around,” Wheeler said. “He was so honored and happy to see young kids come to the shows. He would talk about how great it is to see little kids in the audience tonight. Because it would give him hope that that style of music would carry on.”
Wootton also toured with the Tenessee Three after Cash’s death, and was inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame in 2006. Aside from music, Wootton also worked as a stuntman — sometimes for Cash — and as a driver for bands, including the Smashing Pumpkins. His most recent album, Guaranteed Cash, with Six Mile Grove, was released in 2012.
Wootton spoke about Six Mile Grove in a 2011 interview with Minnesota Monthly ahead of a State Fair gig.
“They’re like family to me. They’re just good all-American boys,” he said of Six Mile Grove. “There’s nothing fancy about them and they don’t try to be something they’re not. And that’s what I like about them, because that’s how I am.”
Jackie Renzetti is a student at the University of Minnesota — Twin Cities. She is an editor at the Minnesota Daily and hosts Radio K’s “Off the Record.”