By DJ Dave Hoffenberg
This Friday don’t miss the first ever Vermont performance of Cameron “Cash” Thayer, age 21, at Outback Pizza in Killington, 6-10 p.m. Thayer hails from Scarborough, Maine, and is the only one in his family to be born and raised there. His family’s roots are spread from Franklin, Maine down to Duxbury, Mass. with New Hampshire and Vermont thrown in. Many of his relatives are right here in the Rutland region. I discovered him through his uncle, Killington’s most interesting man, Chris Thayer — who will be on hand with lots of giveaways for the Labatt Blue party. Chris has told me many good things about Cam and how he won a Johnny Cash music contest. I had the pleasure of speaking to him to learn about that and even more.
Cam Thayer is pretty much the only musical one in the family besides his brother, who plays bass and works as an audio technician for Disney. He said he had been singing for quite some time but
it wasn’t until later in high school that he started developing it. His brother taught him the guitar when he was young but he didn’t take to it. He said, “I was really into it but at the same time, I really wasn’t, because I was so young. When you’re younger, you’re a little more fickle.” He also overcame Bell’s Palsy which can be detrimental to a singer. He said, “What I sang changed over time. When I was really young I was singing the Beatles and music like that. In the seventh grade I got Bell’s Palsy, which was an interesting adventure for me. My parents were freaked out because they thought I had a stroke which made no sense because I was only 11. I was relatively lucky because it healed pretty quickly. After I got through that, I was listening to Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Sublime and all kinds of different genres of music.”
Across the street from where he lived, there were some neighbors that were like a second set of grandparents to him. They would play Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline and stuff like that for him all the time. Johnny Cash was definitely in his life, but not to the point where he wanted to play it. That came later.
His wanting to play guitar resurfaced as time went on. He picked up the guitar for the second time in the 10th grade and every few weeks he would take lessons. His teacher taught him a few songs and showed him how to hold it and hit the chords properly. He owes his Johnny Cash playing to John McCain — his music teacher, not the U.S. Senator — because he taught him how to play “Folsom Prison Blues.” He also taught him how to play Led Zeppelin’s “Over the Hill and Far Away.” Those two songs made his fingers blistered, he was playing them so much.
Thayer’s music description on his Facebook page says, “They Call Me Johnny. A Taste of Johnny, with a hint of Cameron. Most of what I perform is Johnny Cash, However, I am still learning more songs and other artists. I’m taking recommendations, but no promises to every one.” In the 11th grade, he started listening to, and playing, Johnny Cash, and everyone told him he needed to play more. He said, “My mom got me a 27-song book of his and that was really the start of it. Slowly from there it expanded to other artists, but about half of my songs are Johnny Cash.”
Nobody really knows where he got his voice. He said it pretty much came out of nowhere. His grandmother used to sing in the choir when she was younger, but other than that, there is nobody else but his brother. He also sang in the high school chorus and since he played guitar, the teacher would often ask if he wanted to accompany the songs they sang with guitar. He learned a lot of songs then and made use of his guitar playing.
Next month, Thayer is heading back to Pigeon Forge, Tenn., to compete in the North American Country Music Association International Talent Competition (NACMAI). First, you have to compete in a local event, and for him it’s the Down East Country Music Association of Maine (DECMA). Some friends of his are in a band and one time he went to see them, he played a set during their show. They told him about DECMA and he entered his first competition in June 2016. He had a near perfect score in the Traditional Country Male Entertainer Ages 17-20 category and was only a half-point away from perfect. He performed his signature songs, as he calls them, being “Folsom Prison Blues” and “One Piece at a Time.” Those are his start and end songs almost every night he plays. “Every once in a while I break the rules,” he said, laughing.
In 2017, he went to Tennessee to compete in the nationals. Down there he sang “Folsom” a little fast in the Male Vocalist category and did not win, but for the Traditional Country Male Entertainer, he sang “Ring of Fire” with his harmonica and “One Piece at a Time.” That worked out great, and he took first place. Both times that he competed in Maine, he won and qualified for the Nationals in Tennessee. He will be heading back there next month to defend his title. Even though he’s now 21, he still has to compete in the younger category because he was 20 when he qualified. He will be singing some Johnny Cash again, but may also add some other songs as he does not want to be labeled as a Johnny Cash impersonator. One song that he’s digging on now and might play is George Strait’s “Amarillo by Morning.” There are many different categories in the competition and he and a female friend are also going to compete in the Duo category.
Thayer works a few jobs but eventually would like to turn this into a career. “Music is definitely my passion and what I want to do full-time. At the moment, I’m a server at Cracker Barrel,” he said. His first paid gig was August 2015 at the American Legion in Scarborough for its annual lobster bake. He was hired by his neighbor who was a three-war veteran — he served in the Navy in WWII, Korea and Vietnam. Thayer said, “I didn’t have enough songs for a two-hour show, so for the two weeks prior I was learning away like crazy. He helped me a lot and actually got my foot in the door where I really wanted to become a musician. I wasn’t paid, but I was paid out in tips.” Sadly, his neighbor passed in January 2016, but Thayer still gets back there to play when he can. He played some open mics in Maine, and some of those lead to regular gigs like Cole Farms in Gray, Maine.
Thayer hasn’t gotten into song writing too much. “I’ve made my attempts,” he said. “It’s more the fact that I feel like I’m too young to write because I don’t have the experiences yet. I have a mission and goal to start working on it, but somehow you just lose it. You start to work on different lyrics or you have an idea that you’re passionate about, but then when it comes to the flow of writing you just suddenly lose it. I wrote a really bad song a long time ago and that was my own sound. I can do Johnny Cash, but for my own sound I can differentiate between the two. When I sing ‘Blackbird’ or ‘Hallelujah,’ it’s in a different voice than when I sing Johnny Cash.”
At the Outback you can expect to hear a lot of country, but he will mix in some other genres, too. He said, “I learned ‘Blackbird’ by the Beatles a long time ago and recently added it to my set. A week ago I started expanding my range.” He can also play CCR, Jimmy Buffet and Ed Sheeran. He is mostly a country music guy and said, “For me I like all genres but country is something that became me after I started playing Johnny Cash. To go further from there, country really suits my voice.”
Thayer likes the reactions he gets when he plays. He said, “That’s one of my favorite things when I play Johnny Cash … I like to play it so close to the original because of … how people react to it. They like the sound of it. They hear it and look up and tell me how much their dad loves the song or their grandfather used to play the song all the time. That’s one of my favorite parts because it connects with people. I also love when I play a song and people sing along.”