Having come from the next generation of country music superstars, Reba McEntire, who will perform at this year’s fourth annual Johnny Cash Music Festival at Arkansas State University’s Convocation Center in Jonesboro on Aug. 15, didn’t know Cash as closely as her co-headliners Loretta Lynn and Bobby Bare.
But McEntire brings her own special memory of Cash, who without any hesitation came to her side in one of her times of greatest need.
“In 1991, when the plane crash happened, we asked Waylon Jennings to speak at the funeral,” recalls McEntire, speaking of the tragic accident that took the lives of eight of her band members.
Jennings, of course, had been Buddy Holly’s bass player in 1959, and was supposed to have flown with him to the gig following their show in Clear Lake, Iowa. But he gave up his seat to J.P. Richardson, who as the legendary Big Bopper was riding high with his hit “Chantilly Lace” when he joined Holly, Richie Valens and Dion and the Belmonts on their ill-fated "Winter Dance Party" tour.
Holly, Richardson and Valens perished in the Feb. 3, 1959 plane crash, which was immortalized in Don McLean’s 1972 hit “American Pie” as “The Day the Music Died.”
“Waylon said he just couldn’t do it, that it was way too close to what happened to him,” continues McEntire. “I totally understood, so I asked Johnny—who had just buried his mother. I didn’t know him really well personally, but he understood that someone needed comforting and came and spoke. For him to come and speak at the memorial was so sweet and special, and meant the world to all the families.”
McEntire has wanted to appear at the Cash Festival for years, but has been kept away until now by prior work commitments.
“I’m going to tell some stories,” she says of her upcoming performance at the festival. “I love it when people tell stories, and I’ll tell people the stories of how I found my songs—like songs that meant a lot to me growing up: ‘The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia’ by Vicki Lawrence, really inspired me [she covered it for a country hit in 1992], and I can talk about that and other stories about the Statler Brothers and Mel Tillis.”
She did just that last year at the opening of Reba: All the Women I Am exhibit at the Counttry Music Hall of Fame—of which she is a proud member and active supporter, participating in last month’s “We’re All 4 the Hall” benefit concert. But the ever-busy country superstar is focusing now on a more personal project.
“I was walking around on my place in Tennessee, and just started singing the words ‘pray for peace’ and got the biggest chills and said, ‘Wow! That’s a song,’” says McEntire. “Then every time I went out walking I came up with more of the song.”
She’s since recorded the song, “Pray for Peace,” and enlisted her fans to contribute to a YouTube video in spreading its heartfelt message of peace.
“If we can reach an agreement on praying for peace, maybe I’ll settle down!” she says.
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