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Arkansas Native Bill Carter Reflects On The Growth of The Johnny Cash Music Festival

08/05/2013

Third Annual Johnny Cash Music Festival
Featuring: Vince Gill, Joanne Cash Yates, Tommy Cash, Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers and Jimmy Fortune of The Statler Brothers
7 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 17, Convocation Center, Arkansas State University, Jonesboro
Tickets: $150, $75, and $37.50, astate.edu/tickets
(870) 972-2781, or johnnycashmusicfest.com

By: Jim Bessman

As the third annual Johnny Cash Music Festival nears its Aug. 17 date—once again at the Arkansas State University (ASU) Convocation Center in Jonesboro—producer and newly inducted Arkansas Entertainers Hall of Famer Bill Carter is pleased at the growth of the fundraising event and its future outlook.

“The first year was a huge show,” says Carter. “We had Kris Kristofferson and George Jones, both of whom were really close friends of Johnny’s—and then, of course, Rosanne and John Carter Cash and Johnny’s siblings Tommy and Joanne Cash Yates, Dailey & Vincent, Gary Morris and his son Matt, and Rodney Crowell, whose father came from Mississippi County just up the road from where Johnny was from in Dyess [Arkansas, near Jonesboro].”

“Not only was it a great show,” Carter continues, “but what it did was unite the state of Arkansas. Everybody got involved, including the governor, and it was a statewide response to honoring Johnny Cash, whose name is magic over there. People look up to him and respect him so, and it made the whole event a lot of fun in preserving his great legacy.”

But the sold-out show drew 10 percent from outside the U.S., reports Carter, attendees coming from as far away as Scotland, Norway, Germany, Russia and even Australia.

“That’s an indication of the respect that Johnny had around the world,” he notes, adding, “We get tour buses with people from all over who come to Dyess to find the home of Johnny Cash--when up until now it’s been nothing but a rundown shanty.”

Hence the Johnny Cash Music Festival, which raises money to restore the Johnny Cash Boyhood Home in the Depression-era agricultural resettlement colony of Dyess.

Established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s, the Dyess community was part of the New Deal program. It provided an opportunity for destitute farmers, who were advanced 20 or 40 acres of farmland, a mule, a small home and money to buy food and plant crops—with the understanding that if they were successful they'd pay back the government.

Johnny Cash moved to Dyess with his family when he was three, and lived there until he graduated high school in 1950. The family home was appraised at $100,000 when ASU acquired it, largely because of its historical significance.

The Johnny Cash Boyhood Home project also includes the town’s administration building and theater—the latter facility, which had only its front façade standing, to be rebuilt for use as a visitors center.

Last year’s festival was hosted by Rosanne Cash and starred Willie Nelson, Dierks Bentley and the Civil Wars.

“The first two years we netted more than half a million dollars for the project,” says Carter, who hails from the tiny town of Rector, some 90 minutes away.

“This year we’ve got Jimmy Fortune of the Statler Brothers, who had such a long history with Johnny and did an interview for the show. There’s Larry Gatlin, who was a close friend of Johnny and wrote a great song, ‘Help Me,’ that he recorded. And the headliner is Vince Gill, who knew him very well. And Tommy Cash is hosting and he and Joanne will sing and talk about their brother and what the project means to them.”

Carter notes that the festivals have also funded a scholarship program.

“I think Johnny’s children wanted to be sure that some of the money went to help disadvantaged children from his home area,” he says, noting that Dyess is located in one of the poorest parts of the state.

“The State is really working to develop the whole East Arkansas corridor along the delta of the Mississippi River,” says Carter. “The Dyess restoration is a statewide tourism project that benefits everyone in Arkansas by bringing more tourists.”

Next year will bring the grand opening of the Johnny Cash Boyhood Home in Dyess, with the Johnny Cash Music Festival likely to be part of it, says Carter.

Meanwhile, Carter earlier this year received the Crystal Award from the Arkansas Dept. of Parks and Tourism, in recognition of his efforts on behalf of the Cash Boyhood Home restoration. And last month he was inducted as a non-entertainer in the Arkansas Entertainers Hall of Fame, thanks to his career in artist management and legal work on behalf of show business luminaries including Reba McEntire, Ralph Emery, Bill Gaither and the Rolling Stones.

“There was a video presentation, and Keith Richards came on—smoking a cigarette—and brought the house down!” says Carter, who after serving in the Secret Service for Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, famously saved Richards and the rest of the Stones from legal entanglements countless times, including Richards’ and Ron Wood’s notorious 1975 arrest in Fordyce, Arkansas, recounted by Richards at the start of his "Life" memoir.

“I said in my acceptance that I’m the second native of Rector to be inducted,” says Carter. “Early country music legend Skeets McDonald was the first, so I was really honored, because I knew him when I was a kid and looked up to him. He’d come home driving a Cadillac convertible and I’d never seen a Cadillac—much less a convertible! I sacked his groceries at the store and carried them out to him, and I’m honored to join someone so bigger-than- life as Skeets McDonald!”

Bill Carter

Bill Carter