In a follow up to the initial Friday, Sept. 7, brainstorming session at the Kingsland Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church, 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 25, marked a second roundtable discussion held in the Kingsland School Auditorium. Surrounded by Johnny Cash museum-quality displays lining the walls, locals discussed hopes for a projected J.R. Cash Birthplace Museum to be established in the tiny town.
With a population of only 447, an impressive 5 percent of the townsfolk turned out to hear suggestions from the earlier conclave and to address how those ideas can move forward to fruition.
Kingsland residents recognize how being the place where the “Man in Black” began his legendary life is no small honor. Those gathered for the discussion are excited to return the favor by recognizing their native son with rare and unique stories and memorabilia from his earliest days.
But it must be remembered how Kingsland was not just the spot where Cash commenced life before leaving it in the rear-view mirror. With both paternal and maternal family still residing in Cleveland County, Cash returned often over the course of his lifetime, spending extended periods visiting his ancestral home.
Evacuating Dyess during the 1937 flood, which is sung of in “Five Feet High and Rising,” Cash, with his mother and siblings, sought refuge in Kingsland until the waters receded. As a result, tales abound regarding the Cash legend, affecting Kingsland even unto this day.
City Councilwoman and museum project manager Sharon Crosby organized the get-together, while Cleveland County Herald newspaper editor and Kick-Start Cleveland County Chairman Brit Talent convened the conversation.
Talent began by listing the several influential people from around the state who are already on board with the project and who attended the Sept. 7 assembly. These include Professor of Community & Economic Development, University of Arkansas’s Dr. Mark Peterson, along with Cromwell & Associates architect Ed Levy and former Delta Cultural Center Director and fundraising facilitator Ken Hubbell. In addition, he explained how the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism is also throwing their considerable weight behind the museum project.
The early stages of the meeting were devoted to retracing ideas put forth at the September gathering. In broad strokes, these include A) target potential visitors and how to entice them to Kingsland. B) Identify revenue sources to fund the project and establish strong ties with the Cash Trust Fund. C) Identify the potential positive impact of such a facility located in the community and D) recognize unique aspects of Cash’s life not found in other locations. There are also hopes of reviving a Johnny Cash Festival formerly held in the city each year.
Talent pointed out how Kingsland is ideally located in an historic triangle between the River’s family farm north of town where Cash was born, the Marks Mills Civil War Battleground to the south where the largest engagement of Confederate and Union forces west of the Mississippi collided in April 1864, and Alabama football legend Paul “Bear” Bryant’s birthplace a few miles southwest of Kingsland.
He also suggested the possibility of a Johnny Cash geo-cache trail to capitalize on the popular pastime in conjunction with the triumvirate of historic locales in the vicinity. Other notions in the works include guided float trips down the Saline River with cross-channel zip lines to further promote tourism.
Mark Rivers, Cash’s maternal cousin, shared some insights into the family and what new developments are afoot for museum prospects.
He said, “I average two to three letters a week from everywhere in the world and hardly a day goes by that I don’t get a phone call from some of his fans wanting to know any tiny tidbit about Cousin Johnny. Recent visitors here from Australia expressed how Johnny is as big down under as Elvis.”
In a little-known sidebar to Rock & Roll history, a poll of fans was conducted in the mid-50’s by Sun Records’ Sam Phillips. Once tabulated, according to Phillips, Presley narrowly edged out Cash as the “King of Rock & Roll.” Their contemporary, Jerry Lee Lewis, long maintained how Cash actually had the greater number of votes, but the fix was in.
Rivers told his fellow citizens, “The way Uncle Ray (Johnny’s father) was portrayed in the movie ‘I Walk the Line’ was a little more harsh than I recall. I asked my dad about Uncle Ray, and he said, ‘Those were hard times back then son, and hard times make people hard one way or another. They had to survive, and that was Ray’s way of surviving. Some of our hearts got softer, and some got harder.’”
Rivers further said, “In visiting with Johnny’s sister Joanne (at the this year’s 8th Annual Johnny Cash Heritage Festival held Oct. 18-20 at Dyess Colony), she said, as a younger child, she didn’t experience the depths of poverty like the elder kids had early on. When I asked her what she thought was the driving force in Johnny, she said, ‘Escape from that poverty he had grown up with.’”
“Even in later life,” Rivers said, “Johnny was always frugal. He didn’t drive new cars, he usually bought used. June once purchased a $1,200 purse in France, and Johnny never let her forget it.”
According to Rivers, she hadn’t realized what the price tag was until checking out and then was too proud to put it back on the shelf.
“They never left the house that he didn’t tell her, ‘go get the purse,’ he said. “The last I saw of that $1,200 purse, it was threadbare.”
Rivers concluded by explaining how one of the festival’s two main acts, popular country recording artist Jamie Johnson, had overheard him discussing the possibility of a fundraising concert to promote the Birthplace Museum with June and Johnny’s son John Carter Cash.
Politely interrupting, Johnson asked Rivers what he was referring to. Upon explanation, Johnson asked if he could be included to donate his talents on the entertainment roster for such an occasion.
Sharon Crosby reported how initial inspection of the old Kingsland Post Office, which is the originally proposed site for the museum, did not appear favorable. Two contractors and an inspector expressed concern that a structure erected early in the 20th century may have more defects than would be practical to address.
Asked what besides a museum would those present like to see in a visitor’s center, several aspects were stated. They include a commercial-grade kitchen and a facility large enough to host reunions and other catered events, along with a performance stage where musicians could appear and the Cleveland County Theatrical Troupe could give plays, along with a gift shop offering officially licensed Johnny Cash memorabilia.
Following the active, hour-long discussion, Talent adjourned the meeting, saying, “We’ve made a good start, and we’ll reconvene again soon to see how we’re progressing. We’re doing something right because Kick-Start Cleveland County appears to be unique as a county-wide organization and is being held up as a community action model for states all across the South.”
Before dismissal, Talent pointed out the several large museum-grade placards placed around the auditorium perimeter containing the progressive history of Cash’s life across the decades. To most everyone’s surprise, he said how they came at a price tag of $30,000. Their eventual arrival in Kingsland, at no cost to the school or community, is a remarkable story in itself.
As the crowd dispersed, Kingsland School Principal Danny Drury told The Commercial, “UALR got a Humanities Council Grant to commission building the plaques. They were initially meant as part of a mobile display that any organization can request to exhibit anywhere around the state and they’ll ship them to and from the locale.”
Pointing to the several interactive displays with accompanying audio, he said, “These turned out too large to break down for ready shipment.”
With a satisfied smile, he added, “I sat on the Humanities Council at the time and with no practical use for the items, I was asked did I think Kingsland would be interested?
“Current Humanities Council Director Jana Best personally delivered them.”