Johnny Cash event to become a three-day heritage festival in 2017

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Arkansas State University officials announced Saturday (May 21) they have revamped the festival that honors Johnny Cash and raises money for the restoration and maintenance of his boyhood home in Dyess.

The new event that combines educational activities in Dyess, as well as entertainment and special events, continues the legacy of the earlier concert series held in Jonesboro. The three-day event will include entertainment events on Friday and Saturday, preceded by an educational conference on Thursday and Friday.

“I am thrilled to join Arkansas State University in announcing the first Johnny Cash Heritage Festival,” said Rosanne Cash, who worked with the university in developing plans for the festival. “For the first time, we will hold a festival in Dyess, in the cotton fields surrounding my dad’s childhood home and in the town center of the colony. We foresee an annual festival that will include both world-renowned artists on the main stage and local musicians on smaller stages, as well as educational panels, exhibits and local crafts.”

Johnny Cash’s two living siblings, Joanne Cash Yates and Tommy Cash, also were present for the announcement.

The inaugural Johnny Cash Heritage Festival is set for Oct. 19-21, 2017, in Dyess. It will be extended beyond music to become a “heritage” festival.

“As anyone who has spent any time listening – truly listening – to Johnny Cash knows, his music was born of some of the most profound events of the 20th century,” said Arkansas State Chancellor Tim Hudson. “A child of the Great Depression and an advocate for those without a voice in the 1960s, his legacy is point of entry for generations to come to understand America. By incorporating discussions of the societal and historical forces that shaped our nation into this celebration, we are broadening the understanding of Johnny Cash.”

The restored boyhood home of Johnny Cash.
The restored boyhood home of Johnny Cash.

The Dyess Colony was established in 1934 as a federal agricultural resettlement community under the Works Progress Administration and the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, according to ASU. The colony was named for William Reynolds Dyess, the state’s first WPA administrator.

Ray and Carrie Cash, the parents of Johnny Cash, were among the nearly 500 colonist families to move to Dyess. The Cashes moved to Dyess in March 1935 with their five children, Roy, 13; Louise, 11; Jack, 5; J. R., 3; and Reba, 1. Children Joanne and Tommy were born in Dyess.

“The Cash home is one of the few houses remaining in the former New Deal-era colony. Johnny Cash lived in Dyess until he graduated from high school in 1950. His music was greatly influenced by his experiences in Dyess, including such songs as ‘Pickin’ Time’ and ‘Five Feet High and Rising,’” notes the ASU website about the Dyess Colony.

The Arkansas Legislature in 2009 asked ASU to determine the feasibility of developing the town as a heritage tourism site. A Dyess Colony Redevelopment Master Plan was completed in 2010, and the city donated the colony’s administration building and theatre center shell to ASU. The restored administration building houses exhibits related to the Dyess Colony, the Cash family, and the impact of Dyess on Johnny Cash and his music.

In 2011, Arkansas State University acquired the Johnny Cash Boyhood Home, restored through proceeds from an annual Johnny Cash Music Festival.

Dr. Ruth Hawkins, director of the Arkansas State University Heritage Sites program, said event would become a true festival by extending from a one-evening concert event to a three-day event that includes educational and entertainment components. She also said the Heritage Studies doctorate program would coordinate the educational/academic events with overall coordination through Arkansas State University Heritage Sites.

“It is fitting to incorporate the New Deal heritage that was part of Johnny Cash’s formative years into a major annual event that shines light on a critical era that is fading from memory,” Hawkins noted in a statement.

At a press conference Saturday, Hawkins and Dyess Mayor Ken Gilmore said the ASU work on the Cash home and history has helped bring tourism to the region. Hawkins said the Dyess project is likely to have at least a $10 million impact on the regional economy, through lodging and restaurants. Also, several towns including Osceola, Wilson, Blytheville and Jonesboro will benefit, Hawkins said.

In addition to educational programs and entertainment, other festival components will include local and regional crafts and regional and local flavor food vendors. Additional announcements will be made leading up to the first festival, including the keynote speakers for the academic conference and announcement of the lineup for the major concert event.

“For four years, we held concerts in Jonesboro with such great artists as George Jones, Kris Kristofferson, Vince Gill, Willie Nelson and many more, to raise funds for the restoration of the Johnny Cash Boyhood Home and the New Deal-era Dyess Colony in the Sunken Lands of Arkansas,” Rosanne Cash said in the statement. “Arkansas State University and the extended Cash family are immensely proud to honor and celebrate the Sunken Lands. We invite everyone to visit the Johnny Cash Heritage Festival in 2017 and to be a part of a new tradition that honors the art of my father, the resilience of the Cash family and all the hard-working families of Dyess Colony, and the very origins of my dad’s musical inspiration in the Sunken Lands.”