By KEN BECK, The Wilson Post
JONESBORO, Ark.—Friends and relatives of Johnny Cash brought down the house Thursday night with a concert that will result in the restoration of the Arkansas Delta boyhood home of the Man in Black.
The Johnny Cash Music Festival, held at Arkansas State University which bought the Cash house in April, was the brainchild of TV producer and artist manager Bill Carter, who has lived in Lebanon the past 17 years.
Co-hosted by Cash’s children, Rosanne and John Carter Cash, the entertainers also included Kris Kristofferson, George Jones, Gary Morris, Rodney Crowell and bluegrass entertainers of the year Dailey & Vincent. Other Cash kinfolk performing were Johnny’s siblings Tommy Cash and Joanne Cash Yates, John Carter’s wife, Laura, and Rosanne’s daughter, Chelsea Crowell.
"There are four generations of Cashes here tonight," Rosanne said. "And if it wasn’t for that little house, none of us would be here."
Rosanne opened the concert singing "Pickin’ Time," a tune her father wrote about the cotton fields, while a screen behind her held a giant photo of Cash holding his baby girl, Rosanne, in his arms.
"This is a really special day for the Cash family," Rosanne told the crowd of 7,000-plus. "We didn’t know if we would get the house. We’re thrilled that we did. ASU acquired it several weeks ago."
The $300,000 raised by ticket sales will benefit the Johnny Cash Boyhood Home Project in Dyess. The project involves establishing a museum to honor the legacy of the international superstar singer, songwriter and author.
"My father moved here as part of the New Deal with his family, onto 40 acres of land where they grew cotton," John Carter Cash said. "Although we are paying homage to that legacy, we are also moving forward, looking further into the future. . . . It’s been quite a journey. We celebrate the history of my father’s music, but it’s also about rebuilding Dyess."
The concert, which will become an annual event and also provide scholarships to students from Mississippi County, germinated in the mind of Bill Carter last autumn.
"I attended an event at ASU, which is my alma mater, and they told me they were trying to acquire the boyhood home of Cash and hoped to restore it and build a museum to honor him," Carter said. "They asked my help in trying to secure donations to finance the project. I suggested a benefit and told them I knew John Carter and Rosanne and would be happy to discuss this with them.’
Working with Nashville promoter Jan Volz and production coordinator Joey Pruett, Carter met with John Carter Cash in early December, and from that point it was full speed ahead.
Carter began filling the performance bill by calling artists who were friends of Johnny Cash. The first two names on the list were George Jones and Kris Kristofferson, and both agreed.
"I suggested Dailey & Vincent because they provided diversity and were such crowd pleasers, and John Carter had seen them and loved their music, and also their roots music fit with Johnny and the Carter Family," Carter said.
"The same was true with Gary Morris. His son, Matt, came because I contacted Justin Timberlake to bring Matt and sing ‘Hallelujah,’ which they had done on the TV Haiti benefit show and created such a response. Justin had a schedule conflict but suggested sending Matt if I could find someone to sing his part. I assumed he was suggesting Gary, and it became a highlight of the show. All the performers donated their time," said Carter, 75, who also has worked as attorney, Secret Service agent, politician, lobbyist and security consultant and is the executive producer of the Bill and Gloria Gaither gospel music "Homecoming" specials.
Most of the nearly 40 songs performed at the Thursday night concert were either written by or hits of Johnny Cash, and practically all the artists dressed in black.
Kristofferson, who sang "Sunday Morning Coming Down," "Me and Bobby McGee" and his favorite Cash song, "Big River," said, "I have a hard time thinking of John (Johnny Cash) as a friend; he was my hero. He was, and he still is. To be working on a tribute to him and his home is a real honor to me."
John Carter Cash and wife Laura did a duet on "If I Were a Carpenter," a hit made decades ago by his father and mother (June Carter Cash), and Laura sang a Carter Family staple, "Keep on the Sunny Side."
Johnny’s brother, Tommy Cash, sang "Five Feet High and Rising" and "I Walk the Line," while sister Joanne performed "Suppertime." Dailey & Vincent nearly stole the show as their quartet performed an a capella rendition of "When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder" and then launched into a rousing version of "Daddy Sang Bass."
George Jones warbled several tunes, including Lebanon songwriter Curly Putman’s "He Stopped Loving Her Today," and said of his appearance: "It’s for my old buddy, Johnny Cash. He was the best friend I ever had. He helped me in my hard times and gave me work, and I’ll never forget him."
Gary Morris and his son, Matt, were highlights of the concert with splendiferous harmonies on "Wind Between My Wings" and "Hallelujah." Rodney Crowell and ex-wife Rosanne Cash teamed on "Don’t Need No Memories Hanging Round" and then joined daughter Chelsea on "Get Rhythm."
Rosanne said, "I wouldn’t be a songwriter if not for my Dad," as she then sang her monster hit, "Seven-Year Ache," and followed with her father’s songs "Radio Operator," "Tennessee Flat Top Box" and "I Still Miss Someone."
The night concluded with all the performers onstage joining on "Angel Band" and "Will the Circle Be Unbroken."
Johnny Cash’s parents, Ray and Carrie Cash, moved to Dyess, Ark., in 1934. With their five children they were among the 500 families, all ruined by the Depression, chosen to move to the colony, created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal program to get farmers impacted by the Great Depression an opportunity to get back on their feet.
Their fourth child, J.R., was 3 at the time. More than two decades later, J.R. would become a country and rock ’n’ roll superstar to the world, but he never left his sharecropper roots, and the fertile Arkansas Delta was forever a part of him.
Johnny began working in the cotton fields when he was 5. Carrie taught her children to sing in the fields and in the evenings at home as a way of enduring the hardships and as an act of family and faith. On Sundays, the Cashes attended the colony’s Baptist church where Carrie played piano. The young J.R. found no joy in the preacher, but the music touched a deep responsive chord in his thirsty soul. Cash lived in Dyess until he graduated from high school in 1950.
Of the 500 homes built in Dyess 77 years ago, only 60, including the Cash home, remain. Although dilapidated and falling into ruin, it stands as a living monument to the special life and career that took flight from its humble walls. The restoration of Cash’s boyhood home is expected to be the linchpin for the restoration of the Dyess Colony as a tourist attraction and historic site.
The Johnny Cash Boyhood Museum and Home, once completed, are expected to generate 27 new jobs in Mississippi County, with a payroll of $450,000, during the first year of operation.
"It’s about the heart; it’s about the spirit. It’s about bloodlines, too," John Carter Cash said. "The things my father believed in are being continued here. He was a child of Arkansas, a child of this area. The sweat and blood he put into this gumbo soil may be showing the flowering fruits of that now."
For Bill Carter, there are several facets of his own Arkansas boyhood that allow him to relate Johnny Cash, a man he met several times.
"I wish I had known him better," Carter said. "I grew up 30 miles north of Johnny in Rector and under similar circumstances. My parents were laborers who never owned their home, and when I finished high school I followed Johnny three years later and joined the Air Force. It was our way of escaping the cotton fields. By the time I got out of college and entered ASU, Johnny was on his way to becoming a superstar."
The Carter-produced Johnny Cash Music Festival will be turned into a PBS-TV special.
"This show could not have happened without the passionate support and commitment of Rosanne, John Carter, Tommy, Joanne and other members of the Cash family. I will never forget them for the help they gave me, Jan and ASU," Carter said.
"The show became a PBS-TV show only because the entire production crew donated their time to do the show. Producer Michael Merriman, Associate Producer Stephanie Reeves, Director Steve Angus and every other crew member donated their time because most had worked with Johnny at some time during their career and loved him.
"I am not sure why I agreed to do this knowing the kind of commitment required to make it successful, but I have known John Carter and Rosanne and have such respect for them both as artists and as beautiful souls. Also I felt that Johnny deserved to have his great legacy preserved for future generations. Maybe his powerful spirit played a major role," said Carter, a man who knows how to get things done.
For more info, go to www.johnnycashmusicfest.com.
For more about Bill Carter, go to www.billcarteronline.com.
Writer Ken Beck may be contacted at