Embracing the Man in Black
A local drummer abandons his instrument to sing Johnny Cash.
As Birmingham’s premier drummer and “gun for hire,” Leif Bondarenko has played thousands of gigs with dozens of bands in a career that spans four decades.
Bondarenko first achieved renown 30 years ago as drummer for local legends Jim Bob and the Leisure Suits. By the mid-1980s, he had formed the critically acclaimed Primitons with Leisure Suits bandmate Mats (pronounced “Mots”) Roden. He worked regularly with the late blues vocalist Topper Price throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, building a résumé that includes drumming for Wet Willie’s Jimmy Hall, Charles Neville, and Rick Danko of The Band. He’ll soon be touring with Taylor Hicks.
While still earning a living playing for a number of local bands, six months ago Bondarenko stepped out from behind the drum kit and strapped on an acoustic guitar to tackle the role of lead singer for his Johnny Cash tribute band, Cash Back. His vocals are eerily close to those of the Man in Black, and the ease with which he fronts the band will surprise those who know Bondarenko only as a drummer. There’s nothing pretentious about his performance, even when he hoists the instrument under his chin and stares down the neck of his guitar in classic Cash style, as if aiming the guitar like a shotgun.
“I’ve been studying as much live footage of Johnny Cash as I can find,” Bondarenko says, “trying to get his moves down and trying to get as close as I can to the way he sings. I’m concentrating on learning to play acoustic guitar because right now I’m just holding the guitar, and for me that’s a little bit of an embarrassment (laughs).” Until he masters the instrument, however, Bondarenko is reassured by footage of Cash sometimes using the guitar as a prop instead of actually playing. “That makes me feel a little bit better about what I’m doing. But mark my words, I will be playing acoustic guitar, I’m determined to make this thing fly,” he guarantees.
“If I can find an audience for Johnny Cash—be it private functions, corporate gigs, or casinos—that’s what I’m really looking to do. As far as I know, I’m the only one that’s doing a Johnny Cash tribute anywhere near here, and I sing Johnny Cash better than anybody does.”
Cash Back includes Don Tinsley on bass and David Keith on drums, with Gary Edmonds and Tim Boykin swapping out guitar duties, depending on who is available for a particular night. Tinsley has played bass with Bondarenko dating back to 1985, working with him in the Primitons as well as Topper Price and the Upsetters. Tinsley says he was surprised and impressed with Bondarenko’s ability to pull off a Johnny Cash routine. “You know, nobody ever sees it coming,” he says, laughing. “I played with the guy for 20 years and never would have thought in a million years [he could do a Cash act]. When he’s really focusing, it’s sorta spooky.”
Bondarenko recently recorded his first solo CD, Man Named Jesus, four self-penned gospel compositions sung in a haunting, distinctive baritone. Currently the drummer in a band that plays weekly services at the Cathedral Church of the Advent, an Episcopal church in downtown Birmingham, he credits his religious music affiliation with giving him the confidence to become a vocalist and songwriter. “The church has helped me a whole lot in getting my vocals together, ’cause I sing in church all the time,” he explains. “I was going through some really tough times and I’m telling you, man, some of those [gospel] songs I wrote in 15 minutes. You can call it divine intervention or whatever you want, but somebody else was involved in it other than me. And I thank my guardian angels for that. Some stuff you get handed to you, and other stuff, you gotta work for it.”
Bondarenko began drum lessons at age 7, later playing for bands without names in elementary school talent shows when he was just 10 years old. “Our main competition was this guy who was a really cool juggler, he could juggle like crazy!” he says, laughing. He spent a couple of years leading the drum line in the Vestavia High School marching band. In 1976, he secured his first professional job at age 16 playing four nights a week with organist Dickie Bell Walzak’s combo at the long-defunct Downtown Club in Birmingham, doing standards such as “The Girl from Ipanema” and “Mack the Knife.” He laughs as he recalls that “the band members were all old enough to be my parents.”
“Leif’s a really good drummer. He’s had two periods of being a good drummer but they’re for different reasons,” Don Tinsley says. “Back in the ’80s when he was in the Primitons, he was doing this really, really strong beat stuff. We used to call him ‘Bam Bam’ because he was beating the crap out of the drums. At the same time he had the heavy rhythm going, though, he had all these little articulated rhythms going on, too. He used a large metal water can from some old nuclear fallout shelter in the Primitons.” Ten years later, Bondarenko’s style reflected his years playing with Topper Price, Tinsley explains. “Leif got a lot more involved with the dynamics of playing when he was with Topper. Instead of having just a relentless beat going on, he changes his style now; he’ll slow down a little bit and speed up a little bit in different parts of the songs and do a lot more accent kind of stuff. But he can still play both styles.”
Bondarenko recalls the metal container that functioned as a drum. “It was a metal reservoir [for potable water] that they had in nuclear fallout shelters from the ’60s. When I got it, it was army green but I painted it black,” he says. “I’ve still got that thing. My wife asks, ‘Hey man, why don’t you get rid of it?’ I told her I’m never getting rid of it (laughs). Anything that comes from my past musical lives is staying with me, all the costumes, all the percussion instruments. Because you never know when you’re gonna want ‘em again.”
His old percussion instruments and stage costumes won’t be making appearances with Cash Back. Bondarenko dresses in black when performing his Cash show, and he is dedicated to the singer’s simple approach onstage. “I want people to feel like they’re getting the real deal and a good show, and to be listening to somebody who deeply cares about Johnny Cash’s material and the way he presented it,” he says. “Because I’m trying to make it as real as possible without acting like I’m Johnny Cash.” He admits that recalling the lyrics can be a challenge. “Most Cash stuff has tons of lyrics, and getting over that hump has been the hardest thing. My recall has gotten better,” he says. The classic “I’ve Been Everywhere” had the most difficult lyrics to memorize. “It was the hardest one, because it doesn’t necessarily tell a story, it’s just spouting off town names really fast. And it’s hard to breathe when you’re doing that, so I’ve had to learn how to breathe when singing it,” Bondarenko says. “But a song like ‘A Boy Named Sue’ tells a story, so it’s a little easier to remember than others.” &