It was seven, maybe eight, years ago when James Garner headed down to the bowling alley in Lodi to sing a little karaoke. Of course, he was performing Johnny Cash tunes, his passion for most of his life, at least since he was a little kid "annoying" his folks and brother with tunes and lore from the Man in Black.

Garner (not the famous Hollywood actor of the same name) remembers that night well -- the guys who would go on to become the Tennessee Three, were also on hand at Lodi Karaoke, and one thing led to another until someone said something like, "Hey, we could do a Johnny Cash tribute act."

The word is tribute, insists Garner, who appears with the Tennessee Three at Pleasanton's Firehouse Arts Center, for two performances of "A Cash Country Christmas" — a show that blends holiday music with the hits of Cash.

"People seem to like the boom-chicka-boom style of Cash's music with the Christmas tunes as kind of a change from the smooth style of Bing Crosby, Perry Como and Rosemary Clooney," said Garner, who now lives with his family in Galt — just a few miles north of Lodi on Highway 99. "We're not really a cover band, just doing songs. We do a tribute with both the songs and some stories about Cash and his life. And even with the Christmas music, we also have to do the songs like 'Folsom Prison Blues,' 'Ring of Fire' and 'A Boy Named Sue.'

Ever since he was a kid, Garner has been captivated by Cash's songs, the sound of the singer and his rollercoaster life story, which he talks about in some length during the concert.

The performance work, which Garner and the band have been doing for about seven years, has them performing mostly around Northern California and Nevada, doing 50 or 60 shows a year. Most of the time, they can complete a gig and return home to sleep each night.

"I've got little kids, so that's nice," he said.

Later, who knows; it would be great to bring the word of Cash to the entire country, but the way things are now is pretty good. It even got the performers gigs at prisons -- Folsom and San Quentin, where Cash recorded live albums.

"In 2008 we went to Folsom for the 40th anniversary of Cash's show there. It was a free show for the inmates, kind of a way to genuflect to where history was created," he said. "Two years later, we went to San Quentin, were he recorded another album which was bigger than the Folsom one.

During the Pleasanton performances Garner and the Tennessee Three will record the concerts, which will be turned into a live album to augment the two studio albums they have already recorded.

"That's what people have said they want to hear -- something with that live excitement," he said, pausing to contemplate his place in the sun. "I don't kid folks; I don't pretend to be Johnny Cash in any way. I just want to be a conduit to what he created and keep the live performance of his songs alive; live performance is where you connect."

Performances are at 2 and 8 p.m. in the theater at 4444 Railroad Ave., Pleasanton. Tickets, at $15 to $25 can be reserved at 925-931-4848 or www.firehousearts.org.

Contact Pat Craig at pjcraig495@yahoo.com.