If not for Johnny Cash, noted Jimmy Fortune, “there wouldn’t have been the Statler Brothers—and if it weren’t for the Statler Brothers, there wouldn’t be Jimmy Fortune standing on this stage tonight.”
Former Statler Brother Jimmy Fortune was speaking at an afternoon press conference Saturday at the Arkansas State University Convocation Center in Jonesboro, where he, Vince Gill, Larry Gatlin, Tommy Cash and Joanne Cash Yates would soon perform in the Third Annual Johnny Cash Music Festival.
“He influenced so many, in every genre of music,” continued Fortune. “Every kid growing up from the ‘50s on up remembers Johnny Cash and the influence he had on our lives and music.”
His talent aside, “what really got me about him,” Fortune said of Cash, “was that he had his hand on the pulse of the common man. If he walked into a room of 1,500 people, you’d always see him go over to someone you probably thought didn’t have any business being there in the first place. He’d make you feel just as special as he was.”
Cash had discovered the Statler Brothers in the mid-1960s. As he joined the Statlers in 1982, Fortune didn’t get to spend much time with him, “but I sat on the bus and listened to all the stories the Statlers had over the years: I must have heard them a thousand times, and never got tired of them!”
Cash’s sister Joanne Cash Yates recalled growing up with her older brother in the house in nearby Dyess, which is being restored thanks to the money raised at the Cash Music Festival concerts.
“He wasn’t ‘Johnny Cash,’” she said. “We knew him as ‘J.R.’”
She related one particular “outstanding memory”: “I was standing in the kitchen in our little house in Dyess and looking out the kitchen window at his big hand on the water pump, and his voice had changed. He was 15-, 16-years-old and had a deep voice. He was singing ‘Everybody gonna have religion and glory’ [The gospel song ‘A Wonderful Time Up There’], and Mama said, ‘What is that? J.R.? Son, is that you?’ He said, ‘Yes, Mama. I’m going to sing!’ And she said, ‘You sure are! God’s got his hand on you!’”
Yates expressed her gratitude for the restoration of the house.
“I drove by there one day, and it was crying out to be restored!” she said. “People come from all over the world and see it in disarray…I think Johnny would be overwhelmed. He made a statement a few days before he passed away, ‘Baby, I wonder when I’m gone if anyone will really care.’ I said, ‘You don’t know your worth!’ He’d see this today and feel blessed.”
Yates herself spent the first 17 years of her life in the house in Dyess, which was part of a community established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s as a Depression-era agricultural resettlement colony. Part of the New Deal program, it provided an opportunity for destitute farmers, who were advanced 20 or 40 acres of farmland, a mule, a small home and money to buy food and plant crops--with the understanding that if they were successful they'd pay back the government.
“When we walk into it next April when it’s finished, it will look the way it was,” she said. “We found the big wood kitchen stove and Mama’s piano: She’d sing gospel songs till it was time to go to bed. It’s being restored, and will go back home.”
Yates’ brother Tommy Cash, the youngest of the Cash children and with Yates, the only survivors, was about to host the night’s show.
“I know my brother would be proud of all of us and all of you—but he might say, ‘Heck. Let’s get some more cornbread and beans!’” he said.
Turning serious, he added, “I’ve found that since he passed away 10 years ago, people love him just as much or more than they did then. He’d be proud of what’s going on at our home in Dyess. I went out there yesterday and I didn’t cry till I got to the back of the house and broke down. It’s amazing what they’ve done, and I thought about my mommy and daddy and how hard they worked for us. We didn’t know we were poor.”
Gill recalled his own “long history” with the Cash family via Johnny Cash’s daughter Rosanne Cash.
“She was married to Rodney Crowell when we worked together in the ‘70s, and through that friendship I worked with Rosanne and subsequently met Johnny and June and Rosanne’s sisters and mom. It was a delightful family. Rose called me to help with what they’re doing with the house—and I love it.”
Gill also appreciates that proceeds from the Cash Festival concerts also support a scholarship fund for helping disadvantaged children from Cash’s home area.
“I love the opportunity to do good work with the education of young people,” he said. “Any time you have the opportunity to empower a young person to get education, that’s time well spent. The greatest power you can give someone is an education.”
Here Gill lauded Cash for his “open mind.”
“That’s borne out by the people he had on his show,” he said. “Some people are so close-minded that the only music that matters is the kind they make. But on [The Johnny Cash Show] you could see Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell—it was staggering who you got to see. That’s a tribute to a wise man.”
Cash, Gill added, remains “a great, huge piece of Americana. That iconic of a persona doesn’t happen very often in a lifetime: There are people that are just better than you--which is the way it should be. That way you learn from someone.”
Standing out, for Gill, is how much Cash “seemed to operate from a point of fairness,” he said, “which is remarkable. A lot of times you see people achieve, and forget where they came from—and you never saw that from him. He was a great mentor.”
And there was “no genre attached to Cash,” he added, “just this man--and this honesty. Kids picked up on it, and everybody picked up on it. You heard him on speakers and you were commanded to listen.”
Speaking for himself and other musicians, Gill concluded, “Why wouldn’t you spend time to be reverent and respectful?”
Subscribe to my examiner.com pages and follow me on Twitter @JimBessman!