Late singer Cash to be honored with festival

More than 40 years after the late singer

Johnny Cash was arrested in Starkville, residents of the east

Mississippi town plan a festival in his honor that will include a

ceremonial pardoning for the "Man in Black."

The Johnny Cash Flower Pickin' Festival is scheduled for Nov.

2-4 with some events on the campus of Mississippi State University,

said Robbie Ward, executive director of the festival.

Ward, 29, a research writer at MSU, started talking to residents

two years ago about a festival - and a pardon for Cash.

"A lot of people would laugh at me and act like I was kind of

crazy," Ward said.

Now with about 500 signatures on his petition, Ward is heading

up a committee of 25 residents, including a local pastor, alderman

and a bar owner.

"The idea is to allow Johnny Cash fans around the world to take

ownership in this festival," Ward said.

Ward has contacted state and local officials about issuing the

pardon. He is scheduled to speak to the city's board of aldermen

Aug. 7.

Lou Robin, Cash's manager for 31 years, now handles business

affairs for the Johnny Cash Estate.

"I think it would be fun to have John honored even though it

started out as kind of a negative reason," Robin said.

Cash died in 2003.

There are different versions of what happened the night of May

11, 1965, in Starkville.

One told by Cash himself in his autobiography is that he was

arrested by police while walking from his motel to a grocery store

after attending a party at a fraternity house on the Mississippi

State campus.

Another version is that Cash was arrested while picking flowers

in someone's yard.

Cash admitted in his book, "I was screaming, cussing and

kicking at the cell door all night long until I finally broke my

big toe. At 8 a.m. the next morning they let me out when they knew

I was sober."

Cash later wrote a song about the ordeal calling it,

"Starkville City Jail," and later performed it for the inmates at

San Quentin Prison.

"Starkville is now known by fans by virtue (of the song),"

said Bill Miller, founder of the Web site

Miller said the song demonstrates Cash's openness about his


"Johnny was one of the artists that never tried to hide his

background or his past," Miller said. "The significance that he

would write a song about it, shows just who the man was."

Robin said he thinks Cash would appreciate so much interest in

an event in his past that was, well, sobering.

Ward said the message of the Starkville festival will focus on

redemption, something he feels Cash exemplified.

"We believe the pardon is not about his arrest in Starkville,

it's recognizing that when people make mistakes what matters is

what they learn from those mistakes," Ward said.

Maheen Wickramasinghe, 22, of Ontario, Canada, said he got

through many hard times in his life by listening to Cash's music,

especially gospel selections.

"There is no other singer like him that can be so soothing,"

Wickramasinghe said.

Born blind, Wickramasinghe, a Sri Lanka native, said he heard

Cash's music at the age of 9 while living with his family in

England. Wickramasinghe, a piano player, said he got hooked on Cash

at about 12 years old.

On Nov. 2, a community-wide social is planned with a charity

auction at the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity house. At the university's

amphitheater, there will be a showing of the Cash-biopic "Walk the


Ward is trying to line up those who have written books about

Cash for a Nov. 3 discussion group on the Arkansas native. Later

that day, plans include a ceremony at the site Cash was arrested, a

downtown concert honoring Cash's music, a sermon on redemption and

what Ward hopes to be a symbolic pardon by city officials issued to

Cash's family.

Rev. Allison S. Parvin, associate pastor at the First United

Methodist Church, will deliver the redemption sermon during the


"His (Cash's) is just one of the great gospel stories of now,"

Parvin said.

Ward said the final event of the night would include a jam

session on stage with musical artists with the audience singing

"Starkville City Jail."

A community-wide church service is planned at the MSU

amphitheater for Nov. 4 to close the festival.

"By Sunday morning, Johnny Cash will have been pardoned and

before it's over we'll all need forgiveness," Ward said.

Admission to the event will be free, with a suggested donation

of $10. The donations will be divided between the

Starkville/Oktibbeha Boys and Girls Club and the Oktibbeha County

Heritage Museum.

"This being a fundraiser for local charitable organizations

makes it an even more worthwhile project and, of course, the Cash

family would be pleased at that end result," Robin said.

To make the event free and secure musicians for the festival -

perhaps even surviving members of Cash's 1980s group The

Highwaymen, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson - Ward said the

committee is selling T-shirts (black, of course), bearing the words

"Pardon Me, I'm Pickin' Flowers."

Ward said he hopes to make the event an annual affair.


On the Net:

Johnny Cash Official Web Site:

Pardon Johnny Cash: