Backstage at last week’s Third Annual Johnny Cash Music Festival at the Arkansas State University Convocation Center in Jonesboro, event proudcer Bill Carter was relating how his wife, who liked Cash but hadn’t listened to his music in great depth, had recently dug deeper into the vast Cash catalog and made a major discovery.
“I believe everything he says,” she told Carter, who hails from the tiny town of Rector, Ark., not far from Jonesboro.
“Maybe that’s it,” Carter surmised, speaking of Cash. “He’s believable.”
That puts him up there with Keith Richards, noted Carter, whose legal work on behalf of Richards and the Rolling Stones was so critical that he appears on the first line of Page 2 of Richards’ memoir Life.
“What they have in common is their honesty,” Carter said a few days later.
“Cash didn’t follow any textbook rules on how to be a superstar. In fact, he probably violated every single one--and enjoyed doing it! He just stood up and said, ‘Hey! I’m Johnny Cash, and this is the way I do it—and I hope you like me,” and they loved him for that honesty.”
“He and Keith are so much alike,” Carter continued. “They’re who they are, and never let anyone tell them what to do or change what they were doing. Although I knew Cash, I never even stopped to think about it until I got involved in these shows.”
Richards still lives by his own rules, added Carter.
“That’s what I respected most about him. He never tried to be anything but himself, and Johnny Cash was the same way: I was in awe of him when I was around him, because his aura was awesome. He was so special in his own way that I felt that to engage him in small talk was a waste of his time, but [his son] John Carter Cash told me he was so insecure, he would have loved to talk about Arkansas if I weren’t so intimidated to talk to him about anything!”
Carter related a story Tommy Cash told, that occurred when he and his older brother were young and touring together.
“They were playing an arena, and were in the basketball team’s dressing room. Johnny opened all the lockers and picked up every pair of shoes. Tommy said, ‘What are you doing?’ Johnny was looking for shoes that were worn out—for kids who couldn’t afford new ones—and he put a hundred dollar bill in each. And Tommy said, ‘That’s my brother!’”
But “there was no difference between Johnny on stage and at Walmart,” noted Carter, who has also managed the careers of artists including Reba McEntire.
“We take young artists and teach them how to succeed by following the rules of entertainment and studying their singing and style and performing, and sometimes we create someone who maybe has a false image that works on stage and may not be the real person. But Johnny Cash was the same all the time, and that’s what most people like about him. With him and Keith, you get exactly what you see, and they both also had in common that they hung out with the common man, and didn’t go for the glitz.”
Carter liked Cash’s music “and pretty much everything about him,” he noted, “but it comes down to it being who he was and not pretending to be someone else—like so many entertainers. It’s not their fault—because we create them--but Johnny never let anyone create him. He was Johnny Cash, period, and his influence was so far-reaching. I’m still amazed to hear people who are big fans of Johnny Cash that I’d never suspect to be.”
As for the third Cash Music Festival, Carter saw it as “a very compatible show,” thanks to the lineup of Vince Gill, Larry Gatlin, Jimmy Fortune, and host Tommy Cash and sister Joanne Cash Yates.
“The music and talent worked so well,” he said, “and it was a huge success in the sense that where we had a hard time getting press for the first show, and it was a little easier for the second, we saw articles every day from around the world. It was just incredible, and that helps the Festival but also helps the Dyess project [proceeds from the festivals go to the restoration of the Johnny Cash Boyhood Home in the Depression-era agricultural resettlement colony of Dyess, which is near Jonesboro], state tourism and the economy in East Arkansas.”
Carter also noted that the post-concert reviews, phone calls and word-of-mouth all confirm that it was the best show ever.
“They’ve all been different,” he said. “Some may think one was particularly better than the others but all were equally as good--all represented something different. This year we wanted to choose artists who knew Johnny and talk about their relationships with him, and that certainly was the case. Someday we’ll run out of artists who knew Johnny, but are still influenced by him: Dierks Bentley last year was so influenced by Johnny Cash, the person and his music, and it’s amazing how far-reaching that influence is.”
Expecting next year’s dedication of the restored Cash Boyhood Home to provide a “year-round boon to Arkansas tourism [in presenting] how he grew up and the circumstances of his upbringing," Carter says that all that’s needed now is “a team of mules to have out by the house, because everything else is there.”
He describes Dyess’s “beautiful, rich farmland where the house sits,” but notes that when it was built, “huge oak and cypress trees covered the land, and they had to get out there and cut those down. They had no chainsaws then, just hand saws. To get those stumps out of the ground they used hand saws and mules. I’ve had limited experience with that and want no more of it! Now we have bulldozers! Imagine when Mr. Cash and the kids landed there and had to get out and cut those trees and clear that land.”
But Carter, who used to represent legendary country music radio and TV personality Ralph Emery, recalled how when Emery asked Cash how bad it must have been growing up in Dyess, his response was, “No. I loved it. I got to hunt and fish and do things I like to do outdoors, and have the fondest memories of Dyess, Arkansas.”
“Tommy and I were talking about how everybody was on the same level in those years,” said Carter. “There wasn’t anybody who was rich. Eveybody had something in common: They were all poor, and nobody was better than you were.”
“Johnny Cash and I grew up in the romantic era,” Carter wistfully concluded. “We were happy with family and community then. Now families are disjointed, the divorce rate is so high, so many children are raised in single-parent homes. It seems to me there’s a loneliness in this culture, a lack of community spirit and family—which I miss.”
[The Examiner wrote the Foreward to Bill Carter's memoir Get Carter--Backstage In History From JFK's Assassination To The Rolling Stones.]
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