Happy Johnny Cash Day in Arkansas: Story Behind the State Holiday

by Mark Long
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Johnny Cash is an American icon, but he’s also a native son of Arkansas. From humble beginnings, he became an integral contributor to the American songbook, selling over 60 million records. In recognition of his roots in the state, then-Arkansas Gov. David Pryor declared March 20, 1976, as Johnny Cash Day.

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Born in Kingsland, Ark., Cash left his poor family’s cotton farm by enlisting in the U.S. Air Force. After that, he moved to Memphis, Tenn., and became part of a growing 1950s rockabilly music scene that included Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. A relentless performer, his early hits included “Hey Porter” and “Cry! Cry! Cry!”

Even as Cash rose to fame in the 1960s with songs such as “Ring of Fire” and “I Walk the Line,” his personal life was spiraling out of control due to addictions to alcohol, amphetamines and barbiturates. This also contributed to his outlaw image, which he further cultivated through live concert albums recorded at Folsom Prison and San Quentin Prison.

Thanks to his subsequent — and enduring! — marriage to June Carter in 1968, however, Cash began turning his life offstage around. He still battled addiction and endured stints in rehab, but his wife stood resolutely by his side, providing encouragement and support.

The Inaugural Johnny Cash Day

March 20, 1976, began with Cash and his wife June making an appearance at Kingsland, Ark., before taking a special Cotton Belt passenger train 10 miles to Rison. He then rode through the streets of Rison with June, his father Ray, and Gov. Pryor. Later, Cash played a free concert at the Rison High School football field for an estimated 12,000 people.

Cash’s Later Years

Of course, Johnny Cash had a long and storied career after the 1970s. Beyond his solo work, he was part of the country supergroup The Highwaymen with Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson in the 1980s and ’90s. Later projects before his 2003 death included a series of albums produced by Rick Rubin where he covered songs by rock artists such as Nine Inch Nails, Soundgarden and U2.

So, wherever you are each March 20, always take a moment to salute the enduring career of Johnny Cash, the Man in Black.

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