KINGSLAND — On Monday, May 13, a large gathering occurred at the Kingsland Missionary Baptist Church to talk about the community’s best-known former resident: Johnny Cash.
Beginning at 10 a.m. with coffee and pastries, it was the second such meeting that has been held in the tiny Cleveland County town regarding Cash. The goal of the well-attended event was to organize a planning committee for moving ahead with a Johnny Cash Birthplace Museum and Visitor’s Center in Kingsland.
Cash was born on Feb. 26, 1932, in Kingsland. In March 1935, when Cash was 3, the family settled in Dyess in northeast Arkansas. Cash still has many descendants in Kingsland and Cleveland County, however.
Kick Start Cleveland County Chairman Britt Talent welcomed participants before introducing Ed Levy of Cromwell Architects & Engineers. Kick Start is a community-driven effort to boost the county’s economy.
Levy shared a presentation of several different conceptual drawings for consideration. Renderings ranged from a replica train depot to a church house, a barn style structure, a contemporary design and, finally, half of a 1959 J-200 Gibson guitar rising out of the earth with the sound hole as the entry.
Levy pointed out how the various ideas were developed by individual associates without any cross-reference between concepts.
The general consensus of the group was that the Gibson guitar idea hit a home run as the most attractive eye-catcher bound to prove a photo-op destination for anyone traversing the route along U.S. 79 between Fordyce and Pine Bluff.
It was also suggested how that design might garner financial support from Gibson Guitar Manufacturers.
“If you did a study, you’d find less than 10% of those traveling U.S. 79 are new to the road,” Levy said. “The internet is the new super freeway where visitors will post thousands of selfies to bring even more tourism to town.”
Mark Peterson of the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension led the think tank through steps toward creating the Cash Center, including forming sub-committees to determine 1) architecture, 2) museum contents, 3) funding and finance, 4) marketing and publicity and a final subcommittee to 5) act as family liaison to work with Cash siblings, descendants and the John R. Cash Trust.
“There’s a lot of brain power and talent in this room,” Peterson said.
He also suggested local Cash cousins Wayne Cash and Mark Rivers serve as members for the family liaison sub-committee due to their close connection to the Trust and descendants.
Wayne Cash pointed out that “All Johnny Cash-related material is held under the John R. Cash Trust overseen by Sandbox Management Co., which has expressed a desire to visit Cleveland County to see what we’re trying to do. We’re now at a point where we probably want to bring them into our plans because they’ll have to sign off on everything we pursue.”
Rivers explained about the Cash family business and relations since the Man in Black’s demise.
“The whole world knows him as ‘Johnny Cash,’ but growing up around him, he was always just ‘J.R.’ to us,” Rivers said. “I was nearly a teenager before I figured out Johnny and J.R were the same person.”
Rivers further shared that “Four of the seven siblings were born in our grandfather’s sharecropper shack just north of Kingsland. I first heard ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ straight out of J.R.’s mouth in our home in 1955. When you think about it, he was the first international country music star.
“The whole family is for the project, but it has to be signed off on. It’s fairly complicated working with the trust, but I assure you if J.R. was aware of what we’re doing, he’d be all for it.”
Peterson said, “I think it’s just so special that you share this family history with us and the world.”
Ken Hubbell of Hubbell & Associates was again on hand in Kingsland to provide large, vivid-color sketches of developing ideas as they came from the crowd. He told everyone how his experience building the Delta Cultural Center in Helena involved six historical scholars researching the roots of Phillips County.
He suggested some of the related questions to be asked along those lines regarding the Cash Center. “Who were Cash’s early influences? Who did he listen to growing up? Who else was sharing the same narrative found in Cash compositions? Who did he perform and write with?”
Architect Ed Levy asked, “I recommend bringing in an interpretation expert to help design the way the story is presented, because how the story is told greatly effects the actual physical design of the structure.”
Hubbell concurred, adding, “Preservation, presentation, display cases, sound system to play vintage Cash recordings, even putting the background soundtrack together all play a vital part in setting the mood and atmosphere of the Johnny Cash experience.”
Arkansas Tourism Director Jim Dailey said, “As a tourism agency, our primary role is to make people all over the world aware of the attractions offered by our state. This is one of the single most exciting heritage tourism examples in Arkansas.
“I see a community inspired to make this happen, and that’s what will make it work. We’re here to help facilitate your efforts, but it’s up to you to take the ball and run. The leadership of the community is what truly makes it happen.”
Joy Barlogie of Parks and Tourism added, “We can provide a 50/50 match grant for seed money to get the project started. It would go toward a feasibility study that comes out of our section to help determine the possibility of a positive projected cash flow for the center.”
Wrapping up, Wayne Cash and Sharon Crosby were elected co-chairs for the museum steering committee. Crosby said the first fundraiser was set for Saturday, June 1, in the Kingsland School Auditorium with a live performance of “Ring of Fire.”
The show was presented by a touring troupe playing songs and portraying Cash from various stages of his life and career. More than 80 people were in attendance, with nearly $1,000 raised toward the project.
Rivers offered his services as a professional auctioneer to hold public auctions of donated items that could be a tax write-off for both contributors and buyers. He also shared verbal commitments expressed by Marty Stewart and Hank Williams, Jr. to show up for such occasions to donate benefit performances.
Demonstrating the project’s broad appeal, Cash fan Sterling Penix traveled all the way from Clarksville to share how he became aware of the project through a Sunday, Sept. 23, article in the Pine Bluff Commercial, adding, “It’s absolutely amazing what you’re doing here. Three years ago, my three sons and I visited Southeast Arkansas and came this way to see Johnny Cash’s birthplace. If we can help in any capacity, we’ll be happy to.”
Cleveland County University of Arkansas Extension Agent Les Walz said, “We’ve got a lot of pieces to the puzzle coming together here today, but I encourage you to meet as often as possible to help keep the momentum going and churning the spirit that will continue to bring this all together. I also encourage you to get as many young people involved in every aspect of the sub-committees to keep the lifeblood flowing.”
One final recommendation put forth was painting “CASH” in large letters on the Kingsland water tower.