The Man in Black is more popular than ever — especially in the Ventura area, where some very popular Johnny Cash tribute bands are filling up bars and festivals and, in some cases, going on tour in the Midwest and South, where most of Cash’s original fan base lies.

Most tribute bands conjure up scary images of spandex and hair extensions. But the Cash tributes around here take on an almost religious zeal, to not only to play the stuff in his catalog, but to also communicate the look, the feel and the charisma Cash possessed.

One such band is Michael J & the Mighty Cash Cats. Michael Jay Smith, who sings and plays guitar, recalls how the group evolved from his other band, the Rhythm Rangers.

“We had about five Cash tunes we would play, and they always seemed like they would get a good following,” he says. Eventually the decision was made to form a Johnny Cash tribute act. From the beginning, it was Smith’s intention to capture Cash in as much detail as possible. “I had to de-program myself to do his songs.”

Smith combed deeply through Cash’s catalog for a year, then rehearsed with his band for four months before they played their first gig. “My guitar player [Craig Newton] wasn’t immediately sold on [the attention to detail],” he says. But when Newton saw the crowd response to their faithful renditions, he changed his mind.

“I just hope we can do justice to the man, his legend, and his music,” Smith says.

Coming from a (slightly) darker place is Bobby Dickson, singer and guitarist for the Cash Prophets and Big River, two bands that take slightly different approaches to the Cash tribute thing. The Cash Prophets are a family affair that features sons Bobby Jr. and Nathan on electric guitar and stand-up bass, respectively. The Cash Prophets mix Cash covers with originals but never veer far from the classic Cash sound of rhythmic slap-bass and twang-y guitars.

Big River, on the other hand, is a pure tribute band, in which Dickson collaborates with members of roots-rock instrumentalists the Phantom Riders. They are a relatively new combination, having been playing gigs since October.

“I do Cash Prophets for the love of the music, and Big River for the more high-end stuff,” Dickson says. Dickson is probably best known in the area as the singer and guitarist for the Deadbillys, a goth-rockabilly band that made some noise a few years back. In all of Dickson’s musical projects, whether original or cover, there is a definite Cash influence, most evident in Dickson’s baritone vocals. Like Smith, he feels a deep connection to the Man in Black.

“Johnny Cash is a big influence in my life because I’ve walked the line between good and evil my whole life,” he says. Dickson has numerous stories about extensive touring, bouts with drugs and alcohol and divorce and how it helped him to relate to Cash’s music. He says the music has had a calming effect. “I just want to live my life and be a righteous person.”

In explaining why Cash’s music is so popular, even after his death, and why it is es-pecially popular in the Ventura area, Smith offers a historical perspective.

“He lived in Casitas Springs for a few years and was always seen around Ventura,” he explains. Cash did spend almost a decade in the area during the late 1950s and much of the 1960s. He did have a few hits while he lived here, but it also was the time when his first marriage dissolved and he descended deeply into drugs and alcohol. Smith also says many

Ventura residents have Midwestern lineage.

According to Dickson, however, the reason for Cash’s enduring popularity is deeper than that. “Everybody knows the kind of man he was. He’s been a struggler, he’s been a religious man, and he’s been there for the prisoners and the underdog.” He broke it down even more: “There are two kinds of people: those who love Johnny Cash, and those who will.”

The Mighty Cash Cats perform at the Buckhorn Saloon on April 22. 2818 E. Vineyard Ave., Oxnard, 485-6816. Visit them online at myspace.com/themightycashcats.