The Johnny Cash Music Festival hits Jonesboro, Arkansas on Friday, October 5. With a lineup of Rosanne Cash, Willie Nelson, Dierks Bentley, and the Civil Wars, executive producer Bill Carter tells Billboard that assembling talent for the festival, hosted by Arkansas State University, has never been a problem.
“There hasn’t been much of a problem getting artists to do this, which makes it a lot easier,” says the legendary manager.
“I know Dierks Bentley was a big fan of Johnny’s, and wanted to do this,” says the legendary manager. Then, there’s Willie — who was a longtime friend. Rosanne asked that I get the Civil Wars if I could, and they were anxious to do it.”
The event will help raise funds to restore Cash’s birthplace in nearby Dyess. Carter recalls how he came to be involved with the project. “I was in Jonesboro at Arkansas State for a function, and the chancellor asked my advice. He said they were acquiring the Johnny Cash home place, and they wanted to restore it. However, with the university being a state agency, they wouldn’t be able to use state funds to do it. So, they asked if I would help them raise money to restore it and preserve his legacy. I asked if they had made contact with the Cash family, and they said no. So, I told them that’s where we should start. I had known John Carter because we had done a documentary on Johnny’s love of Gospel music for PBS a few years earlier. I had known Rosanne for a number of years, so I consulted with the kids, and see if they were interested, and they were.”
Carter then went to work on the festival, and he found that with such a mission, artists were very keen on helping out. “I said ‘Let’s do a benefit concert to raise the funds.’ When I started on this, I don’t think I realized how popular Johnny was. So, when I called artists or people about it, they were eager to help and donate their time to help raise money.” Artists involved in the inaugural event included Rodney Crowell, George Jones, Kris Kristofferson, and Dailey & Vincent.
It wasn’t just the recording artists that donated their time, as Carter recalls. “Last year, we decided to do a television special, but had no money. I know the A-crew in Nashville, and I called them up and said ‘I want to do this, but I have no money. It’s for Johnny Cash.’ And, without exception, they all said ‘We worked with him before, we loved him, and we’ll do for nothing. The entire television crew worked for nothing to do that special, which is very unusual. It was just incredible that he has that power and popularity among people. When we did the show, there was about 7.200 seats allocated for it, 760 came from outside the United States. That just blew me away that they came from that far.”
With the participation of Cash’s children, the event also was used to help out a group of people very close to Cash’s heart.
“They both said that he would have wanted to help the poor kids of his home county,” Carter said. “We decided that a portion of the money would go towards a scholarship for an underprivileged child in the area where he grew up. We gave our first award last year, and now there’s a young lady going to college through a Johnny Cash scholarship. I think that’s where I began to feel the spirit of Johnny Cash.”
With the house scheduled to be finished and open to the public in 2013, the mission of the festival will be to continue to lend a helping hand to graduating seniors across the region. “Even the revenue from the restoration from the house and the museum – once the expenses of operating it are covered, the revenue will go towards helping the disadvantaged children near Johnny’s home. It’s quite an undertaking, and a worthwhile one.”
To many of those beneficiaries, it represents a chance at an education they may not have the opportunity to pursue. “The area where he grew up probably has one of the highest poverty levels in the country. His home county is one of the highest in the state. Rosanne and John Carter both told me that they wanted to continue to help as long as they could. Imagine, those kids that get an education will go back and want to help their community because of Johnny Cash.”
Billboard will be in Jonesboro on October 5 for the Festival, and we’ll have a report from there in The 615.