Andrew Dillon watched the upright bassist, on stage in the spotlight with two vocalists, providing the hypnotic smolder and thump to the song “Fever” during a 2015 performance of “It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues” at New Stage Theatre in Jackson, Miss. Dillon, on bass guitar, was in the band, but he had passed up the instrumental role.
During auditions, New Stage asked if he could play upright bass, but the Jackson-native musician shied away from fully embracing the opportunity. Out of his comfort zone, he said. Then, for each day the show was in production, he received a nightly reminder of just what he had missed.
“(The song) was like a romance thing between two people, but the upright bass was almost like another character in the scene,” Dillon later told the Mississippi Free Press. “Once I heard the song, (I realized) it was really simple … I absolutely could have done that!”
Chris “Red” Blisset of New York, the person who basked in that limelight in Dillon’s stead, gave the Mississippian some showbiz advice that Dillon still remembers: “If a director asks you if you can do something, say you can do it and then figure out the rest later,” Blisset told him.
Fast forward to 2023, Dillon, as a featured performer in “Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash,” finally gets his theater spotlight at New Stage. The show is a unique musical tribute to the Man in Black, featuring more than two dozen of his classic hits, with performances launching on Tuesday, May 30, and continuing through June 11.
‘Nothing But Faith from the Get-Go’
As a key member in the ensemble cast, Andrew Dillon acts, sings and dances—“Nothing too intense,” he’s quick to point out regarding his relationship with choreography—and he plumbs the depths of his musical wheelhouse, often playing upright bass, bass guitar, fiddle and a bit of snare drum.
Red Blisset returns for this production, too, this time as both director and cast member in the show he calls “a concert with a concept.” This show marks the theater veteran’s eighth time directing “Ring of Fire” and his 15th participating in the musical’s production in total.
Cast members, using their own first names, share Cash’s journey of faith, family, love, success, struggle, redemption and other themes through scenes, story and song. They speak using Cash’s words, but rather than impersonating the legendary performer, “I like to approach it as a bunch of actors and musicians got together, and they really want to talk to you about Johnny and do their best to honor his music,” Blisset said. “Mostly we’re here to get you to tap your toes and nod your head along.”
Having “nothing but faith from the get-go” in Dillon, Blisset said, the director plugged the actor into comedic numbers with “the fellas,” singing along to a gospel tune and flashing skills in a bit of a musical battle. “What have I had to give him that he didn’t bring?” Blisset said of Dillon. “Not a thing.”
Son of established Mississippi musician Sherman Lee Dillon, Andrew Dillon grew up in the capital city and got his musical start in the Dillon Family Band—a 10-piece ensemble specializing in string instruments composed of the family’s two parents, their seven children and an in-law. As a child, he watched his father play as part of the band for a number of New Stage musicals.
Once, when a bass player could not manage a part, Sherman told the director, “I think my son can do it.” From there, Andrew added to his credentials through musical performances in “Shrek The Musical,” “Hairspray,” “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do,” “One Man, Two Guvnors” and “The Grapes of Wrath.”
Dillon played with other bands through high school at Power APAC and during college at Jackson State University, including gigs at F. Jones Corner, a venue that Dillon’s late brother, Daniel, opened years back with a business partner.
Under the moniker “The Amazin Lazy Boi,” Dillon created musical sets featuring traditional blues, R&B and pop songs. After a six-year stint in Raleigh, N.C,. where he taught music and earned his master’s degree, Dillon returned to Jackson with his family in 2021. He now serves as the music teacher for St. Richard Catholic School.
“So, (I have) a lot of experience here, but this is my first time as a featured performer,” Dillon said. “I’ve never had lines (before). I’ve always been more in the pit, like a backdrop to the actual show. But now I’m a part of the show, which feels very different.”
His cast mates’ strong theater backgrounds and collective experience have helped him fulfill this new role. “I can feel them leading me lots of times, guiding me through the process,” Dillon explained. The musician added that performing as a character named Andrew who plays bass on stage helps him overcome his nerves as well since that is “not much unlike what I (otherwise) do.”
Mississippi Musicians: ‘Different DNA’
From his childhood to his adult life, Dillon has heard many renditions of Johnny Cash’s songs that other artists have performed in addition to Cash’s original releases. Johnny Cash’s “At Folsom Prison” album particularly stood out to Dillon.
“It just, in my mind, made a lot of sense, his way of telling stories,” Dillon said. “Also, I appreciate the way he always questions authority. … the way that he always has to push back. As an educator, as someone that works with young children and even through my own life, I appreciate the Man in Black, the one that’s going to stand there and ask the question, ‘Is this the best way to do this?’ … even against huge powers.”
Transitioning into theater has felt “comfortable” at every turn, Dillon described, from the setting to the supportive people who surround him—an exciting experience, too. “Now, I can do anything,” he boasted.
Dillon’s director and cast mates, including fellow Mississippi singer-songwriters Jennifer Smith of Clinton and Ryan Bergman of Gulfport (a senior at Mississippi State University), agree.
“He’s so much fun to be around, and he’s so talented that I hope that he continues to do this,” Smith said. An actor-musician show like “Ring of Fire” can pave the way to growth in new areas, she noted. “Andrew’s really good! … It’s been fun to watch him work.” Bergman added that Dillon’s unique appearance and delivery work well in the role.
Blisset credited Dillon’s upbringing amid his dad’s considerable blues and country music bona fides and his singing in church, with bringing authenticity to the production.
“In Mississippi, you get a different DNA, musically,” the director said. “When (Andrew Dillon) comes into the room, we get to stand on the shoulders of his heritage. We get to stand on the foundation of his musical knowledge. He adds something to the show that I can’t teach.”
When New Stage Artistic Director Francine Reynolds asked Dillon if he could play electric guitar for 2021’s production of “Little Shop of Horrors,” the musician remembered Blisset’s advice from 2015 and answered affirmatively. “I do not play electric guitar, but I did for ‘Little Shop of Horror,’” Dillon recounted.
“I made it through the run. The (music director) didn’t love me, but we worked it out,” he added with a laugh. “Every time we’d start a song, I’d be like, ‘Wait just a second, just a second. OK, got it!’”
Reynolds encouraged Dillon to do more, ultimately leading him to understudy for last year’s “I Just Stopped By to See the Man.”
“I’ve learned a lot at New Stage,” Dillon said. His master’s degree in arts and teaching with an instrumental focus means that he is often switching between instruments. Crossover skills can get him through most musical tasks at hand. “Nothing too flashy,” he said of his abilities, grinning. “I’m no Sherman Lee Dillon.”
Prospects of a new performance path, more musician-actor parts and projects like “Ring of Fire” elicit a “Yes. Yes. Yes,” from Dillon, who rubbed his palms with let’s-get-started fervor at the mere mention.
And if anybody asks if he plays upright bass, Dillon’s response rings ready, steady and true. “Yeah, sure. You got one?”
“Ring of Fire” performances begin on Tuesday, May 30, and continue through Sunday, June 11, 2023. Evening performances run from Tuesdays through Saturdays and begin at 7:30 p.m. while midday performances take place only on Saturdays and Sundays and begin at 2 p.m. Tickets cost $40 for general admission and are $35 for seniors, students and military members. Purchase tickets online at newstagetheatre.com, by phone at 601-948-3533, or through the New Stage Theatre box office (1100 Carlisle St., Jackson).