Meet Juanita Ca$h, the Cumbia Songstress Putting a Juárez Spin on Johnny Cash Records

Odd couples aren’t new to pop music. Some can be mega successful – like Blur’s Damon Albarn joining forces with Del the Funky Homosapien in Gorillaz. Others can be complete duds; for instance, Phil Collins teaming up with Bone Thugs-N-Harmony.

Take the late, great Johnny Cash: He was an artist who, across the span of his career, collaborated with a diverse range of artists, including Willie Nelson, U2, Paul McCartney, and Tom Petty. “The Man in Black” had an impact on countless artists of every genre, transcending musical boundaries to spread his influence on a global level.

What if Cash went on one of his epic benders, crossing the Mexican border for the umpteenth time and landed in Juárez? What if, in the midst of all the chaos that town has to offer, he hooked up with a local woman and they had a child? What if this child were musically gifted? After all, she would descend from a pretty radical gene pool. If this child grew up in Juárez, it’s safe to say she would be raised on her dear old dad’s tunes, but also on Latin music, especially cumbia.

The child lives, and her name is Juanita Ca$h.

“I’m a radio producer for Afropop Worldwide. So one day my former boss Sam Backer [and I] were listening to some music,” says Morgan Greenstreet, Ca$h’s percussionist. “Honestly, I can’t remember if we were listening to cumbia or Johnny Cash. He turned to me and said, ‘I have the best idea for a band. It’s going to be called Juanita Cash, and it’s going to be cumbia covers of Johnny Cash songs, and you’re going to spell the Ca$h with a dollar sign, and you’re going to have a female singer! Isn’t that the best idea ever?!’”

Erica Ramos as Juanita Ca$h
Read more

From the get-go, Greenstreet loved the idea. Upon further listening, he found the musical similarites between the two styles “functionally correct.” Greenstreet, who also serves as the drummer for the transglobal soul/cumbia/fusion band Karikatura, got right to work piecing together the not-so-average tribute band. He quickly tapped Erica Ramos (singer for the boogaloo band Fulaso) for lead vocals and added Karikatura’s bandleader and guitarist Dima Kay as a collaborator.

The result is some choice material that has alt-cumbia fans buzzing. Later this month, the band is set to release a five-track EP honoring their namesake’s fictionalized father figure. To up the ante, the release is scheduled to coincide with a tribute show on Cash’s birthday (February 26) at New York City venue Subrosa. In January, Juanita Ca$h offered fans a peek at one track, “Fuego Del Amor,” their take on the classic “Ring of Fire,” complete with a gorgeous champeta dance spin. The band has since followed up this track with their twist on “Cocaine Blues.”

Erica Ramos, who was a theater arts major in college, offered some insight into her role: “From a vocalist perspective, I have been doing a lot more research on Johnny Cash himself and ‘The Man in Black.’ And this idea of Juanita Ca$h, you know, this character that we’ve kind of made up, this illegitimate child that shows up from Juárez, Mexico. What of Johnny Cash does she carry with her? From his life and his drug binges? His ins and outs with women? His physicality, how he carries himself? He’s kind of mysterious, even though we know about him and his life.”

Greenstreet, Ramos, and Kay are hustling hard to make the concept of Juanita Ca$h a reality, yet there’s still an aura of unpredictability surrounding the project. Perhaps this is the way it is supposed to be. What else can one expect, considering the muse.

No one can say for certain what stunts Juanita Ca$h will pull on February 26, but at least we know she won’t shoot a man just to watch him die.

Juanita Ca$h plays Subrosa in New York City on February 26, 2016. Purchase tickets here.