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Las Vegas Musician On Playing Johnny Cash And The City's Music Scene

When it comes to performing, Ben Hale has seen it all.

He was an understudy for Raoul in the Venetian's run of "Phantom of the Opera." Now, he's Johnny Cash in Harrah's "Million Dollar Quartet." And when he's not under the bright lights of the Strip, he's moonlighting with other musicians in the Las Vegas valley in what he calls one of the best music scenes around.

But it all started in a little theater in Utah when he was just a kid.

"Theater runs deep in our family," Hale told KNPR's State of Nevada. "My grandparents ran a theater in Glendale, Calif., which is still running. It's the longest running center stage theater in the U.S. I grew up around it. My grandparents always asked me to be in plays, whether I liked to or not, and at the time, I didn't."

After stints running sound and lights for these shows as a teenager, Hale learned to play the guitar at 14. His father taught him three chords, Hale said, "and said, 'You can learn the rest on your own, son.'"

He got his break on stage while in college, performing in a Utah production of "The Secret Garden." A few shows later, he was persuaded to audition for "Phantom of the Opera," where he stayed until the show's end. Hale then took on the role of Johnny Cash in the "Million Dollar Quartet."

"Those are big shoes to fill," Hale said of playing Cash. "I don't know if I'll ever fully – I don't think I should fully fill them. That's not my lot in life. But, Johnny Cash is a figure that needs to be remembered, from his feistiness, his raw, rowdy, rock-and-roll attitude, and then his spiritual, grounded side. He was deeply into spiritual music. He was a bad boy, and he was a bad boy who wanted to be good."

Web Extra: Listen to Ben Hale's soulful rendition of Sam Cooke's "The Hem of His Garment".

When he's not playing Cash, Hale moonlights as a musician in his own right, writing and performing songs solo and with his band, the Crimson Balladeers. He said he takes his songwriting inspiration from everyday life.

"They come from all walks of life – personal experience to just, kind of, stepping into another character," Hale said. "Or, you hear a catchphrase or you read something in the newspaper, and you'll just find something that speaks."

To hear Ben Hale perform some of his original songs, as well as a cover of "Folsom Prison Blues," listen to our full interview with him above. Hale is performing two shows at the Smith Center on Jan. 31.

Copyright 2015 KNPR-FM. To see more, visit

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Casey Morell is the coordinating producer of Nevada Public Radio's flagship broadcast State of Nevada and one of the station's midday newscast announcers. (He's also been interviewed by Jimmy Fallon, whatever that's worth.)