Johnny Cash Heritage Festival

The Johnny Cash Heritage Festival is an annual event held in Dyess (Mississippi County), the small town where Johnny Cash lived until he was eighteen years old. The festival, begun in October 2017, features several days of music, arts and crafts, scholarly lectures, and appearances by Cash family members and nationally known performers. The event is sponsored by the Cultural Heritage Program at Arkansas State University (ASU), headed by Dr. Ruth Hawkins. The festival is held in October, traditionally a month of good weather in northeastern Arkansas as well as the period when farmers are harvesting cotton.

From 2011 to 2014, ASU held the Johnny Cash Music Festival in Jonesboro (Craighead County), featuring concerts by such country music luminaries as Rosanne Cash, Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson. The concerts were organized to raise funds for the restoration of Johnny Cash’s boyhood home, which had fallen into disrepair after years of neglect. As the restoration of the home neared completion, ASU decided to rebrand the event as a heritage festival that featured not just country performers, but also historians, musicologists, and other scholars knowledgeable about Johnny Cash and the time he lived in—with emphasis on the New Deal era, when Dyess and the Cash house were built.

Johnny Cash’s boyhood home opened to the public in August 2014. Cash and his family moved to the Dyess resettlement colony—a New Deal effort to help impoverished farmers during the Great Depression—in 1935 from Kingsland (Cleveland County). Cash lived in the simple wooden farm house from that time until he joined the U.S. Air Force in 1950. After years of effort by ASU, the two-bedroom home was fully restored to its original 1935 appearance, and it includes period items from the Cash family, such as mother Carrie Cash’s piano.

Visitors to the inaugural heritage festival toured the house, the visitor center, and the original administration building in the center of town. The visitor center, where lectures were held, was built on the spot where the Dyess movie theater once stood; its exterior reflects the theater’s original 1940s appearance. The administration building, however, is an original structure. ASU had it restored to include space for tourists to view interpretative history panels and attend lectures.

The inaugural festival was a success, with thousands of visitors coming to enjoy the music and hear talks on Johnny Cash and Depression-era Arkansas. The festival also benefited from mild October weather. On Friday night, visitors listened to the surviving members of the Pacers—who had recently lost singer Sonny Burgess—perform outside the visitor center. On Saturday morning, Rosanne Cash gave a keynote address in the town community center. She talked about the government’s role during the New Deal, saying that New Deal officials gave people not a “hand out, but a hand up.” She was preceded by Michael Streissguth, a biographer of Johnny Cash and author of a book on Rosanne Cash’s musical relationship with her father. The Saturday afternoon main music event featured performances by Dyess native Buddy Jewell, Joanne Cash Yates, Tommy Cash, Kris Kristofferson, and Rosanne Cash. The musical acts performed on a large stage positioned in a field next to the Cash house. Roy Cash, who co-wrote the classic Johnny Cash song “I Still Miss Someone,” also spoke to the crowd.

The 2018 festival featured films and lectures, as well as a fiftieth-anniversary tribute to the 1968 “Johnny Cash Show” tours that led the following year to a popular television show. Hosted by John Carter Cash, the Saturday musical performance featured Jamey Johnson, Alison Krauss, Ana Cristina Cash, Suzanne Cox, Heather Berry Mabe, Ira Dean, and others.

For additional information:
“Johnny Cash Heritage Festival,” http://johnnycashheritagefestival.com/ (accessed December 12, 2018).

“Johnny Cash Heritage Festival Closes Out with a Concert.” Arkansas State University. https://www.astate.edu/news/johnny-cash-heritage-festival-closes-out-with-concert (accessed December 12, 2018).

Schnedler, Jack. “3-Day Johnny Cash Festival in Arkansas to Commemorate Musician.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, August 31, 2017. Online at http://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2017/aug/31/3-day-johnny-cash-festival-to-commemora/ (accessed December 12, 2018).

Steed, Stephen. “Cash Festival Going Back to Singer’s Roots.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, February 19, 2017, pp. 1A, 9A.

Colin Woodward
Lee Family Digital Archive, Stratford Hall

Last Updated: 12/26/2018

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