Town Pardons Johnny Cash at 'Flower Pickin' Fest'

On May 11, 1965, after playing a show at Mississippi State University, Johnny Cash was arrested and charged with public drunkenness. This past weekend, the city of Starkville, Miss., symbolically pardoned him. The ceremony took place as part of the three-day Johnny Cash Flower Pickin' Festival. It's named after Cash's defense: He reportedly told the arresting officers that he was just picking flowers — at 3 a.m. Cash went on to write a song about the experience: "Starkville City Jail."

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

Johnny Cash finally got a break in Starkville, Mississippi - that's where 40 years ago, Cash had one of his celebrated brushes with the law. This past weekend, the city pardoned the late country music legend.

Erika Celeste has the story.

ERIKA CELESTE: It's dusk. Robbie Ward, executive director of the Johnny Cash Flower Pickin' Festival, drives back to May 11th, 1965.

Johnny Cash has just finished playing a concert at Mississippi State University.

ROBBIE WARD: After the show, he went out partying just a little bit longer than maybe he should have because he ended up in this private property, and someone calls a police on him. And when they pulled up, they asked him what he was doing.

CELESTE: Cash protested, saying he was only picking flowers - hence the name of the festival - and told cops he was Johnny Cash.

WARD: Yeah. Well, Dwight D. Eisenhower, get the heck in here, you're going to jail.

CELESTE: During his night in jail, he kicked the cell door so hard he broke his toe. The event later inspired him to write the song "Starkville City Jail."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "STARKVILLE CITY JAIL")

JOHNNY CASH: (Singing) I found myself surrounded; one policeman said: that's him. Come along, wild flower child. Don't you know that it's 2 a.m. They're bound to get you 'cause they got a curfew. And you go to the Starkville City Jail.

CELESTE: There is no Starkville City Jail. Cash was actually in the Oktibbeha County Jail. After the singer died in 2003, Robbie Ward, a longtime fan, wanted to do something to remember his hero.

About two years ago, he struck on the idea of getting Cash pardoned. Saturday night, Starkville's mayor shared the honor with Sheriff Dolph Bryan.

DOLPH BRYAN: And it being represented upon me that it being proper to symbolically pardon the said Johnny Cash.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

CELESTE: Cash's pardon was symbolic because technically, he paid his debt to society when he posted the $36 for bail. His daughter, Kathy, spent the first part of the weekend joking that she'd really come back to town to get her father's $36 back.

DAVID OSWALT: I'm David Oswalt, president of the Oktibbeha County Board of Supervisors. And on behalf of the board of supervisors, here's your $36.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KATHY CASH: Thank you, sir. All right, dad, here you got it. All right?

CELESTE: In addition to Cash's daughter, Kathy, his sister, Joanne, attended the festival. She said the whole family was touched that the city had gone to so much trouble.

JOANNE CASH: It amazes us in a very thankful way that Johnny is still so loved.

MARTY STUART: There's two kinds of people on Earth, those that who love Johnny Cash and those that will.

CELESTE: Marty Stuart, Cash's lifelong friend and one time son-in-law headed the Johnny Cash Flower Pickin' Festival.

STUART: Somewhere along the way in life, those words, those songs and that voice - they're going to touch your heart somewhere.

CELESTE: In much the same way as Cash's life story, says festival director Robbie Ward. We all make mistakes. But, like his hero, he says the festival is really about what we do afterwards.

For NPR News, I'm Erika Celeste in Starkville, Mississippi.

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