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Johnny Cash show offered more than music

A 1973 edition of the Herald & Tribune contained this photo of Johnny Cash in Jonesborough as he looked over a book on Landon Carter.


Staff Writer

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In July of 1973, Richard Nixon was the President, Stevie Wonder was on the radio and right here in Jonesborough, Johnny Cash was preparing to celebrate the Fourth of July in Tennessee’s oldest town.

The Herald & Tribune announced the show as one of Cash’s largest to date.

Johnny Cash performed on Friday, July 6, 1973 in Jonesborough for what was the first annual Jonesborough Days Festival. The show was hosted at the Jonesborough Middle School football field, and included Carl Perkins, the Tennessee Three, and, of course, his wife June Carter Cash. Now, this year’s Jonesborough Days Festival will feature a Johnny Cash look alike contest and a tribute show dubbed the “Johnny Cash NOW concert”.

The show that sparked the man in black-themed events this year at the festival might have been over 40 years ago, but for former Jonesborough Mayor Kelly Wolfe — who was 3 years old at the time of the show — Johnny Cash made created an unforgettable memory in the Jonesborough native’s mind.

“During the show, I remember there was film of two trains colliding with each other. That stuck out in my mind,” Wolfe recalled. “It also stuck out in my mind that he and his wife were singing together and how good they were together. And to this day I’m still a huge Johnny Cash fan.”

As an adult, Wolfe said he finally got to thank the man in black in 1999 when Cash played at the Carter Family Fold in Hiltons, Virginia.

“I told him that I remembered seeing him at the very first Jonesborough Days,” Wolfe said. “I wanted him to know what kind of impression it made on me. I remember he said he remembered playing it and that it was a great crowd.”

But Cash didn’t wind up in Jonesborough by chance; thanks to a group of dedicated community leaders, Cash agreed to play the show to kick off the Jonesborough Days Festival after the group made a trip to Hendersonville, where Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash lived.

Mark Hicks — whose mother, Lois Hicks, was part of the group that made the trip to persuade Cash to come to Jonesborough — said his mother shared with him her memory of the meeting.

“Momma told me that when they got to his house, Johnny Cash came downstairs in a big black robe and black house shoes and (the group) sat there and talked for a good little while,” Mark Hicks said. “I know they talked about Jonesborough and he agreed to do the show.”

An unidentified newspaper clipping and an autographed show program from the 1973 festivities are pictured. (Courtesy of the East Tennessee State University Archives of Appalachia)

The show didn’t only help celebrate Jonesborough Days; Washington County Commissioner Pat Wolfe said that during the time, Cash’s agreement to come to town also boosted the restoration and preservation movement in Jonesborough, which was taking place during the time of the show.

“Jonesborough was just in its infancy of getting the historical restoration movement going,” Pat Wolfe said. “There were a lot of naysayers in the community, a lot of naysayers out in the county saying, ‘That’s not going to work. That’s not going to happen.’ About the same time, storytelling was beginning too and the same naysayers said the same things about storytelling.

“But the way that the first Jonesborough Days developed, it quieted a lot of naysayers and showed them that yeah, it’s really going to happen. Of course, that went right along hand-in-hand with all the restoration that was starting downtown. It was an emphasis point to kick off that we were going to do this.”

In addition to taking place at the time of the town’s restoration, Mark Hicks said Cash’s show also raised money to help start up a museum in Jonesborough.

“The idea came up that Jonesborough needed a museum,” Mark Hicks said. “They didn’t have a museum and with everything going in and being done, they wanted to have that.

“My mother and the group collected all the money and that money ultimately went and started the museum that Jonesborough has now. That stuff has evolved in the last 50 years, but whatever they put in during the mid ‘70s was where that money went.”

But did Cash know he was potentially playing a part in Jonesborough’s restoration movement? If his love for history and the area from which June Carter Cash was from proved to be any indication, Pat Wolfe said he believes Cash had multiple reasons to do the show in Jonesborough.

“Johnny got excited about what was going on,” Pat Wolfe said. “He was sort of a history buff of Arkansas and he of course also got excited about up where June came from in Southwest Virginia, Hiltons and Maces Springs and up in that area.”

As for Kelly Wolfe, it was the country music legend’s willingness to do the show, in addition to one of the most memorable concerts he’s ever seen, that solidifies the impact that Jonesborough Days kick-off show had on the little town of Jonesborough.

“He was just kind enough to do it,” Kelly Wolfe said. “And I think when you start off with Johnny Cash, you can’t go wrong. Jonesborough Days, to this day, continues as a strong festival thanks to his involvement.”