Thursday night, the Johnny Cash Festival paid tribute to the legendary singer with a nearly four-hour long show of performances by Cash’s siblings Tommy and Joanne, daughter Rosanne, son John Carter Cash and wife Laura, former son-in-law Rodney Crowell, and granddaughter Chelsea Crowell at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, Arkansas.
Joining them to entertain a sellout audience of 7,000 were close friends of the Man In Black and music legends in their own right, Kris Kristofferson and George Jones. The concert came about through a collaboration between the Cash family and Arkansas State University to fund the preservation of the childhood home of Johnny Cash in the small town of Dyess, located about 30 miles east of Jonesboro.
Johnny Cash’s musical sensibility was clearly formed by his hardscrabble upbringing on the family farm in Dyess, and was underscored in concert in songs such as “Five Feet High and Risin’,” performed by younger brother Tommy, and youngest sister Joanne’s rendition of “Suppertime.” John Carter Cash added his own reminiscences about his father detouring the tour bus off Highway 63 when they were close to Dyess to see the old home and walk through the now-untended cotton fields he once labored in.
Kristofferson, who was visibly emotional on Wednesday during a pre-concert press conference, paid tribute to the man he called “his brother” with versions of his own classics, “Why Me Lord” and “Me and Bobby McGee.” Jones sang “I’ve Got Stripes” to honor Cash and called him “my dearest friend in Nashville.”
John Carter Cash got the crowd roaring with “Folsom Prison Blues,” and the concert built up to an emotional peak with the appearance of Rodney Crowell, who was later joined by ex-wife Rosanne Cash for a moving rendition of “No Memories Hangin’ Round,” followed by “I Got Rhythm” with added vocals by their daughter, Chelsea.
Rosanne’s closing set – highlighted by “Seven Year Ache” and “Tennessee Flat Top Box” – was followed by a group finale of “Will the Circle be Unbroken.”
The Cashes were one of 500 families relocated to Dyess in the mid-1930s as part of a Depression-era project designed to give them a new start and 40 acres of land. Cash lived there from the age of three through high school graduation in 1950, and the home was recently purchased by Arkansas State. Funds raised by the concert – estimated at $300,000 – will go to restore the Cash home, create a Johnny Cash Childhood Museum in Dyess, and help rebuild the small town.
“There are four generations of Cashes here tonight,” said Rosanne Cash in conclusion. “And if it wasn’t for that little house, none of us would be here.”