by: Chuck Dauphin, Nashville
t a press conference during Friday’s Johnny Cash Music Festival in Jonesboro, Arkansas, Dierks Bentley might very well have made a statement that might best sum up the legacy of the “Man In Black.”
“A lot of people think the Johnny Cash name stands for being bad ass, and it does in a lot of ways,” he said, “but there’s a lot more to it than just that.” Friday night’s concert at Arkansas State University offered ample proof of those words. As artists from four different walks – Bentley, Cash’s fellow Highwayman member Willie Nelson, hip duo the Civil Wars, and Rosanne Cash, his daughter and host for the evening, came together to salute the music and artistic vision of Cash.
The mission of the show – at least initially – is to raise funds to help renovate the childhood home of the singer, which is located in nearby Dyess. The property has been acquired by ASU, and plans are for the home to be opened to the public in 2013. However, Rosanne Cash said that the show will go on long after the house project is complete.
“It’s not just about restoring the house, but also about establishing a heritage site in Arkansas and providing scholarships for kids to go to Arkansas State University,” she said. “This part of the country needs the attention, frankly. I think the musical importance of this area is not understood by a lot of Americans. It’s time to shine a light on it.”
Upon seeing the condition of the house prior to work being started, Rosanne said “I was not hopeful. I saw the state it was in, and I thought how are they going to do this? Do they have enough photographs for them to recreate it?” Luckily, they had a willing participant who also lived there, Johnny’s sister, Joanne Yates. “She has a photographic memory, and she remembered where everything was and what it all looked like,” Rosanne said with a smile.
The varied musical lineup was a goal that Rosanne shared with festival producer Bill Carter. “That was an ongoing discussion. There were a lot of names thrown out, and this was our dream list.”
She said each artist immediately said yes upon being asked. “As far as I know, there was no convincing,” she related. “The Civil Wars told me this was the easiest yes they have said all year. Willie flew from Maui on Friday to do it. Dierks said yes immediately. I was incredibly humbled by that.”
The show came off smoothly. Opening the show, Rosanne delivered a flawless set that included such hits as “Seven Year Ache” and “I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me.” She closed with her 1988 chart-topping cover of her dad’s “Tennessee Flat Top Box.” Nelson appeared next, bringing the crowd to their feet with classics like “Night Life,” “Whiskey River,” and his CMA-nominated “Roll Me Up And Smoke Me When I Die.” The Civil Wars, also CMA finalists, dazzled with cuts from their debut album, and Bentley followed up with an enjoyable set that included hits such as “Home,” “Am I The Only One,” and “What Was I Thinkin.” All then returned to the stage – along with Johnny’s sister Joanne and brother Tommy – a veteran hit artist in his own right – closing out the night with a sing-a-long on the Cash standards “Big River” and “Pickin’ Time.”
After the event, Carter said that “Everything came together smoothly. Sometimes, it gets chaotic, it all comes together the day of the show. We had a lot of college students, and that is important because his last four albums sold more to the younger people than anyone. That was amazing.”
One college student at ASU that was excited about the event was Phillip Ryan LaRue of Rector, AR. He was one of two inaugural recipients of the Johnny Cash scholarships. Being an Arkansas native, he considered it an honor.
“My family has been fans of Johnny Cash’s music for a long time, and I’m thrilled to be connected with that name,” LaRue told Billboard. “The fact that you can get a scholarship from the Helping Hands organization that Bill Carter has funded is absolutely phenomenal.”