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story.lead_photo.caption Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Johnny Cash illustration. - Photo by Kirk Montgomery

A few thousand people will gather in Dyess, a dot-on-the-map Arkansas Delta town, and celebrate Johnny Cash from Thursday through Saturday afternoon.

The endless Delta land, usually broken only by tree lines and its silence ended by the chug of farm trucks hitting a higher gear, will instead be upturned by a mass of people and the air broken by music in praise and devotion to a man now dead 14 years.

Nine essential Johnny Cash songs

• “Folsom Prison Blues”

• “I Walk the Line”

• “Ring of Fire”

• “The Ballad of Ira Hayes”

• “A Boy Named Sue”

• “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky”

• “Rusty Cage”

• “Hurt”

• “God’s Gonna Cut You Down”


It might seem an odd question, especially to an Arkansan, but it's not. Think about it. When's the last time thousands came together in a field to celebrate the career of Sam Cooke? James Brown? The Velvet Underground?

Yet, there these people will be, assembled

for the three-day Johnny Cash Heritage Festival. True, the weekend honors Cash, who died in 2003, while also focusing on and raising money for the restoration of Dyess, where Cash grew up. But even the heaviest of heavyweight artists usually get a boyhood home and a museum -- the restored Johnny Cash Boyhood Home is in Dyess, the Johnny Cash Museum is in downtown Nashville, Tenn. -- and not a yearly celebration.

But Cash's standing seems to grow larger and larger every year, not just through the festival, but because Cash has truly become a legend. Not just a music legend. But a legendary figure.

He outshines other artists in the musical constellation. Why? Why is Johnny Cash as large a figure now as he was 10 years ago? Twenty years ago? And certainly 30 years ago?

Here's how some musicians, music writers and academics answered when asked: Why does Johnny Cash still matter?


"Johnny Cash still matters because great artists will always matter. From Shakespeare to Martha Graham, from Joan of Arc to Frank Sinatra, a singular, unique voice with a powerful and particular vision cannot help but captivate a society. My dad was one of those. His audience was spellbound by him -- they poured their projections onto him; he embodied their longing. That hasn't changed. He transcends time. He is still spellbinding, and he is still Everyman, and Everyman's vision of what they want in the world. Great artists last forever, because the work they do in the world changes the world. That's irrevocable."

Rosanne Cash is a Grammy Award-winning country and Americana musician, author and eldest daughter of Johnny Cash. Her most recent album is 2014's The River & the Thread. She plays 3 p.m. Saturday at the Johnny Cash Heritage Festival.


"One only has to look at the diverse group of artists who claim Johnny Cash as a musical influence to see that indeed, Johnny Cash still matters. He was and is the proverbial pebble in the musical pond that rippled through the lives and the music of countless other artists. From his traditional country peers to scores of other genres and artists including rockers like Bono and poet singer-songwriters like Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash bridged the musical gap for both artists and fans.

"For me personally, being born and raised in northeast Arkansas, with relatives and other family who grew up in Dyess with the Cash family, Mr. Cash was not only among the very first musical influences on me, but also a constant source of pride for me. Seeing someone come from the same lowly background as my family, to rise up from the dirt poor Arkansas Delta and make a name for himself, inspired me more than I can ever put into words."

Buddy Jewell is a Lepanto native and country musician whose paternal and maternal grandparents were colonists at Dyess. He plays 12:15 p.m. Saturday at the Johnny Cash Heritage Festival.


"There are precious few artists who, a half century after their recording prime, and almost 15 years after their death, still retain as much of a gripping hold on our popular consciousness as Johnny Cash. Today, he is both a pop icon and a folk hero, a singer whose music we still hear at arena concerts, karaoke bars and protest rallies across the country. His music still resonates with us today because at his best, whether he was singing about the unrelenting hold of heartbreak in 'I Still Miss Someone' or the centuries-old plight of Native Americans on Bitter Tears, Johnny Cash's voice, in all its low, booming conviction, remains one of the most true and trustworthy instruments of American artistic expression this country has ever seen."

Jonathan Bernstein is a contributing writer for Rolling Stone, Oxford American, American Songwriter and more. His writing can be found at


"Johnny Cash still matters today on so many levels. The timelessness of his music and his stories from a bygone era are certainly part of his enduring legacy. But perhaps most important is that he is the embodiment of the American dream -- we identify with him because he is flawed and that makes him human. And he shows us that even an individual from desperate circumstances can go on to become an international music icon."

Ruth Hawkins is the executive director of Arkansas State University's Heritage Sites program and an advocate for historic preservation and heritage tourism.


"Johnny Cash was such a towering figure in American music that he remains relevant today on that count alone: Not only are his recordings still in print and in play, they're regularly -- if not constantly -- being reissued and repackaged and repurposed.

"But Cash, his music and cultural message are also being reclaimed, by none other than his children. Just [this] August, after video showed a neo-Nazi participant in the Charlottesville racial violence wearing a Johnny Cash T-shirt, his 'sickened' children posted an eloquent Facebook message testifying to his being 'a man whose heart beat with the rhythm of love and social justice,' who taught them ... 'Children, you can choose love or hate. I choose love.'"

Jim Bessman is a veteran music journalist who has written extensively for Billboard. His writing can be found at


"Bob Dylan wrote that Johnny Cash was the North Star, a guiding light. I understand that statement completely. Johnny Cash's voice is a rock bed for me. It grounds me, takes me home, takes me back to an ancient memory of my grandfather in the garden, the cadence of his Southern accent spilling some earthen wisdom to me about turnips or taming wild horses.

"Cash was born only a few counties away from where I was born, and his particular Southern accent sounds remarkably like my family. It's odd, then, that everyone, even Bob Dylan, hears that same particular dialect and feels a comfort and kinship. For me, I hear my people's cadence when I hear Johnny Cash. But somehow that hollow baritone, chock-full of richness, like the black soil he was born to, speaks to everyone. And not just from his time, although his career spanned almost six decades. It speaks to people young and old even now that he's gone."

Arkansas native Bonnie Montgomery is a classically trained opera singer whose music is a blast of country, Americana and folk. Her self-titled LP was released in December 2014.


"To me Johnny Cash was this flawed, imperfect individual with this incredible gift of song and music. He was like a regular individual in so many aspects which made it easy for fans to relate to him. He was spiritual and funny, but had some really bad habits. He was the quintessential maverick."

Trumpeter Rodney Block, an Arkansas native, blends hip-hop and soul into his jazz. His newest album, TrumpHouse, pairs jazz with house and techno music.


"Johnny Cash was not an outlaw, but he empathized with them. He understood what it is to feel trapped and incapable of communicating with those around you. Many of his songs grappled with love, family, aging, God and anything else a person might bump heads with in a lifetime -- watching other people move on while you stay stuck, turning to violence because of shame. His willingness to 'go there' meant his performances were often as daring as they were vulnerable. In fact it's this universal determination to find daring in our own vulnerabilities that will always keep Johnny Cash relevant."

Kim Ruehl is the editor-in-chief of No Depression, the quarterly journal of roots music. She's working on a book about native Arkansan Zilphia Horton, a major source for the anthems of the labor and civil rights movements.


"J.R. Cash still matters because of his music, which continues to inspire legions of fans. But Cash is also a quintessentially American story, a man who defies categorization. He came from nothing, got it all, lost it, then got it back again. He matters because he is so many things to so many people: Democrats and Republicans, punkers and folkies, Christians and pagans. He gave concerts for prisoners before people talked about 'mass incarceration.' As the godfather of outlaw and alt-country, Johnny will matter as long as songs are sung."

Formerly at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock Center for Arkansas History and Culture and author of the manuscript in progress, Country Boy: The Roots of Johnny Cash, Colin Woodward is editor of the Lee Family Digital Archive in Stratford, Va. He is a presenter at the Johnny Cash Heritage Festival.


"Like all of us, John experienced the dark and the light, and he never tried to deny the existence of either. It is not despite his falls and flaws that we are standing in the middle of a desolate former cotton field in his name today; it is because of them, and how he climbed out of that cave of hopelessness and despair to reach his Promised Land, that gives us faith in our tomorrow. Bob Dylan called John 'the North Star,' and we set our courses by him. His was a lonely, twisting path that began in those bleak days of the Depression in Mississippi County, but he knew with certainty where he was headed. And we know, just as certainly, that he got there.

"He did not just speak for us or to us. He was us. And still is."

Mark Stielper lived a dream, growing to not only meet his childhood idol, Johnny Cash, but to become the singer's friend, confidant and personal historian. He has contributed to 20 books, documentaries and films, and is in the final stages of a thousand-page epic, The Legends of Johnny Cash: How Man, Myth and Music Created the Man in Black.


"I like to tell people that Johnny Cash sticks to your ribs. Elvis Presley and Bob Wills and Michael Jackson could send thunder up your spine, still can, even years after they disappeared. But did they ever give you much to think about, like Cash did, staring out from the dark set of his weekly ABC program in 1970 and preaching to you in prose or poetry about race, prison reform, the plight of the American Indian, youth culture or Vietnam? He never was an artist-activist in the mold of, say, Joan Baez or Pete Seeger, but he kept his fingers on those few chosen issues that remain unresolved to this day. He could make you think then, he can make you think now. And he still sticks to your ribs."

Michael Streissguth has written three books on Johnny Cash, including Johnny Cash: The Biography. He is serving as a consultant on a documentary now in production by Ken Burns on country music. He is a keynote speaker at the Johnny Cash Heritage Festival.

Photo by Democrat-Gazette file photo
Kris Kristofferson played at the first fundraiser to restore Johnny Cash’s boyhood home in Dyess. He plays this weekend’s Johnny Cash Heritage Festival, too.
Buddy Jewell, a native of northeast Arkansas, says Johnny Cash was “a constant source of pride” as a child. Jewell plays Saturday at the Johnny Cash Heritage Festival.
Photo by Democrat-Gazette file photo
Even after he became an international superstar, Johnny Cash often returned to his home state, such as in this 1976 visit.
Photo by Special to the Democrat-Gazette/MARCIA SCHNEDLER
The restored Johnny Cash Boyhood Home in Dyess was opened to visitors in 2014.

Style on 10/15/2017

Print Headline: Why Johnny Cash matters; Musicians, music aficionados comment on why people of all ages, generations identify with The Man in Black’s music, life


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  • Foghorn
    October 15, 2017 at 12:56 p.m.

    I never met him and won't be at the festival, unfortunately. I have been many places around the world and when people would ask where I'm from, smiling politely but not knowing anything of AR, I frequently mentioned Johnny Cash. Almost always (excepting Morocco) my hosts would exclaim fandom and, more often than not, break into a deeply accented Cash tune. He's like an AR passport.

  • MaxCady
    October 15, 2017 at 6:25 p.m.

    Someone once said to Johnny, "Johnny, you're always dressed in black like you're on your way to a funeral." He replied, "maybe I am."