A pardon for Cash,
a party for fans
42 years later, Starkville turns jail stay into a 'Flower Pickin' Festival'
By LaReeca Rucker
Because her daddy owned the local radio station, Sarah Matthews was
privileged to have a backstage pass to all Starkville concerts.
So on May 10, 1965, the 26-year-old felt confident walking backstage inside
Mississippi State University's Animal Husbandry building, the only structure
large enough to house the crowd that came to see Johnny Cash perform.
There, Matthews asked Cash and his fellow performer, June Carter, whom he
later married, over to her house for a party. "He said that he had to go to
the Pike fraternity house, but after he finished performing there, he would
come to mine," she says.
Cash kept his word, and they later joined the fun at Matthews' Longmeadow
"We didn't ask him to play," she says. "We just told him to come eat, drink,
party and have a good time. We partied into the wee hours, and then they
went back to the University Motel on Highway 82."
But that wasn't the last Matthews saw of Cash. The next morning, very early,
her phone rang.
"It was the jail calling, saying they had Johnny Cash," she says. "They said
he'd been picked up in the early morning hours crawling down Highway 82
"The man from the jail said he told them he was at a party at my house last
night and asked if I would come and get him," Matthews says. "I said, 'I'm
on my way.' So I went to the jail, picked him up and took him back to the
motel. June must have been asleep and not known he was gone."
Cash wrote the song Starkville City Jail after the experience, and now 42
years later, community members will pardon the music legend during a
festival that will honor Cash and recognize the event leading to his
The Johnny Cash Flower Pickin' Festival will kick off Friday in Starkville,
where city, county and state leaders will issue a symbolic pardon to Cash
and his family during a three-day event.
Arma Salazar, vice president of tourism and retirement development at the
Starkville Convention and Visitors Bureau, says she isn't sure how many
people will attend the festival, but hotels are filling up.
"There have been calls to our office from all over the country, including
Canada and Europe," she says. "If 10,000 showed up, which we are hoping is a
conservative number, we are looking at an estimated economic impact of $1.6
million for the two-night weekend."
Many are hoping the Johnny Cash festival has staying power comparable to
Tupelo's Elvis Presley Festival.
Linda Johnson, executive director of the Tupelo Convention and Visitor's
Bureau, says the Elvis event draws thousands each year.
"I think last year we had people from five countries and 28 states who
attended," she says. "The festival continues to grow, and we are so lucky
here to have a national and international attraction because of the
birthplace of Elvis.
Johnson says she sees the potential of an annual Johnny Cash festival.
"Starkville is a sister city to Tupelo, and I would hope that the Johnny
Cash festival would have a strong impact and be successful for them too," she says.
Debbie Brangenberg, director of the Downtown Tupelo Main Street Association,
says it's smart to capitalize on what makes your town unique.
"In downtown revitalization, we always encourage communities to celebrate
their roots, and the things that are unique to their community," she says."We have found that people like to try new things, and if it's a good
experience, they'll come back for more. It's about creating memories."
Robbie Ward, Mississippi State University research writer, conceived the
idea for the Johnny Cash Flower Pickin' Festival.
The former newspaper reporter says he wanted to do something to recognize
the Starkville-Cash connection after writing a story about the one-year
anniversary of Cash's death.
Ward describes the man in black as a symbol of redemption, a musical icon
and a less than perfect man who looked out for the downtrodden of the world.
"I've learned that Johnny Cash, as a musician and as a person, has touched
the lives of millions of people out there," Ward says, "and almost every
person has a Johnny Cash story about how his music impacted their life.
"I think that's why putting this festival together is so important. It
brings together Johnny Cash fans from all over to celebrate someone who has
had such an impact on American culture.
"It's been kind of amazing hearing from all these people who have an
interest in coming to the festival, but it's really not surprising to me. I
would have thought some kind of festival paying tribute to Johnny Cash
already existed. Elvis has Graceland and Tupelo and now we'll give
Starkville to Johnny Cash."
The University Motel wasn't the last place Matthews saw the man in black.
She moved away from Starkville in 1992, living in Toronto and New York
before purchasing a home on Old Hickory Lake in Henderson, Tenn., a suburb of Nashville. Other neighbors who lived there at the time included Roy
Orison, Barbara Mandrell and Cash.
"I lived across the lake, and he and June Carter lived there too," says
Matthews, who owned a bookstore in town called The Book Peddler that Cash
occasionally visited. One day, she reminisced with him about his Starkville
"He wrote that song Starkville City Jail, and I said, 'Couldn't you have
written us a better song?' "
Now 68 and a resident of Gulf Shores, Ala., Matthews says, like others, she
finds the concept of the Johnny Cash Flower Pickin' Festival humorous.
"I think it's one of the funniest things I've ever heard of," she says.
"He's a legend because he's an unbelievable entertainer. He could sing. He
could read poetry, and he put his life back together."