Plans are being unveiled for this year’s Johnny Cash Heritage Festival, which raises money for the music icon’s boyhood home in east Arkansas. The annual event had to be cancelled last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Amid a resurgence of cases in recent months, the decision was made to hold this year’s festival online.
While it’s hard to compete with in-person live music performances, organizers hope technology will make this a uniquely intimate festival. It will be headlined in October by daughter Rosanne Cash performing from the living room of the small Cash family farm house. Additional performers are expected to be announced next week.
There will also be discussions about Johnny Cash, social justice issues he championed during his life, and what it was like growing up in Dyess, a colony created during the Great Depression as part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.
“We are focusing on a program that will feature things that we could not do in-person,” said Dr. Adam Long, executive director of the Arkansas Heritage Sites program, which is part of Arkansas State University. The university bought the dilapidated house in 2011 and has overseen the restoration of it and some buildings on the town circle in Dyess.
“We, of course, look forward to having everybody back in-person. We know what a valuable experience live music is, but for the moment during this year when things are so uncertain, we've decided to look for a program of behind-the-scenes programming and involving international scholars and things such as that,” Long said.
Cash was born in Kingsland, Ark. and was only 3-years-old in 1935 when his family, who were living in poverty, was one of 500 selected to be part of the planned Dyess community. Each family got 20 or 40 acres of land to farm, a new house and outbuildings, with later earnings intended to repay the government.
In a 2016 interview with KUAR News, Rosanne Cash said arriving at the new house was forever seared in her father’s memory.
"He said that his first memory was of going into this new home that really saved their lives, that the government had provided, and that there were five empty cans of paint sitting in the front room,” she said.
Rosanne Cash’s reconnection with the south through the restoration of her dad’s boyhood home provided the inspiration, she said, for several songs on her 2014 album The River & The Thread, which won three Grammy Awards. Cash used that imagery for her song “The Sunken Lands,” which opens with the line, “Five cans of paint.”
It was a hard life for Ray and Carrie Cash and their seven children as they labored to grow cotton. But it provided inspiration for Johnny Cash’s later music, as he noted during a 1969 concert at New York’s Madison Square Garden.
“After I got into the music field, I started writing, recording and singing songs about the things I knew. I wrote a lot of songs about life as I knew it back when I was a little bitty boy,” he told the audience before starting “Five Feet High and Rising.” The early hit in his career was based on the 1937 flood of the Mississippi River, which forced an evacuation of Dyess.
"The music that the Cash family… sang in the fields, the church, and in their Dyess home formed the background of their lives,” Rosanne Cash said in a 2019 interview with KUAR News. “For my father, it became the center of his life and the wellspring from which he drew his inspiration. He said quite often that he loved every rock, every tree, every clot of dirt in Dyess, Arkansas."
The virtual festival will be held Oct. 15-16. Long said the panels, presentations and performances will debut on a live schedule, then be available for ticket holders to watch on demand for a week following the festival.
“We think that's a real plus for this format,” Long said. “In the past you had to choose which panels, which presentations you were going to attend and can't get to see everything, but this year, you will be able to.”
Additional plans for discussions and participants will be announced in the coming weeks, he said.
This year’s festival is taking place as plans are proceeding for Arkansas to replace its two statues in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall with Johnny Cash and Arkansas civil rights pioneer Daisy Bates. The Arkansas General Assembly approved changing the state’s statues in 2019 at the urging of Gov. Asa Hutchinson.
In June, artist Kevin Kresse was selected to create the Cash statue after giving an impassioned presentation to two state committees about what inspired him while creating the design. He also showed a three-foot-tall bust of what he envisioned the statue will look like, which was largely based on a photo provided by the Cash family.
This year’s festival will celebrate the 10th anniversary of the first concert being held to raise money for the restoration of the house. The 2011 show at ASU’s Convocation Center featured Rosanne Cash, Kris Kristofferson, George Jones, Rodney Crowell and others.
Three subsequent concerts were held there until work on the home was complete. In 2014, a grand opening ceremony was held for the house, with the following year’s festival moved to a field next to the house so that attendees could experience the home and community firsthand.
Restoration work has also been completed over the years to the old theater building on the Dyess town circle, which was little more than a shell of the building, but has now become a visitor’s center. This year, with the help of grants from the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council, Long says restoration of the old gas station in town has been completed which will be an archive facility for material related to the community.
“We didn't anticipate getting back so much documentation from the colony, which has been great for us and for researchers who might want to visit us and to take advantage of those resources,” Long said. “With so much coming back, we didn't have a place to store it, so that building is just now complete and is opening this fall.”
Tickets for the event went on sale Sunday and can be purchased here.