In the early morning of May 11, 1965, country legend Johnny Cash just wanted to pick flowers on the side of the street in Starkville after playing a show at Mississippi State University, but Starkville police were not fond of that idea.
Cash was arrested for public intoxication and booked in Oktibbeha County Jail. After his night behind bars, Cash notably memorialized his experience through song.
Starkville Convention and Visitors Bureau, Mississippi Country Music Trail Commission and Visit Mississippi honored Cash and his experience in “Starkville City Jail” with the 35th Mississippi Country Music Trail marker, unveiled Friday near the corner of Martin Luther King Drive and North Jackson Street.
The Mississippi Country Music Trail commemorates country music singers through their contributions and stories all across the state. Visit Mississippi Director of Tourism Craig Ray said he knew now was the time to honor the “Man in Black” at the “largest outdoor museum in the entire world.”
“At these events, we always lean on the locals to help us promote and put the events together, so we’ve been planning this for so long, and we’re just excited to have this on a great, beautiful, chamber of commerce weather day,” Ray said. “It’s been a great turnout, and it was such a great story. … With our markers, we want to have these community stories.”
In attendance was Grammy Award-winning country artist Marty Stuart, a native of Philadelphia, Mississippi. He created the original concept for the Mississippi Country Music Trail, Ray said.
Stuart got his start performing in Cash’s backup band. He honored the late Cash, who passed away in 2003, at the ceremony by performing “Starkville City Jail” with Cash’s own guitar.
“Johnny Cash was a master showman,” Stuart said. “I cut yards in my neighborhood to have enough money to buy the Johnny Cash San Quentin record, which is where this song existed. When you come into a town and play a concert, probably the last thing on your mind is getting arrested and going to spend the night in jail. But he took the worst of circumstances and turned it into a folk tune.”
After Cash’s original concert in 1965, he performed at the Pi Kappa Alpha Fraternity house on campus. Members of the fraternity attended the event, including Harry Freeman, who was at the Pike house the night Cash performed.
“Never did I think then, out of all of the things I’ve done in my life, this is what I get my picture taken for,” Freeman said.
Cash was symbolically pardoned for his arrest in Starkville in 2007 at the inaugural Johnny Cash Flower Pickin’ Festival.
Local attorney and state Rep. Rob Roberson said Cash was someone worth honoring due to his continuous fight for social justice.
“He was able to say something about our country without walking on it…,” Roberson said. “He wasn’t one of these people that would see something that needed to be changed and didn’t say anything about it — he said it. He also said how proud he was of his country. If I have one thing to say, we need more Johnny Cashes out there. We need more people willing to say what’s wrong but willing to be proud of where they’re from.”
Mayor Lynn Spruill said she is thrilled to have a Mississippi Country Music Trail marker in Starkville and hopes it will bring in tourism and economic growth.
“I’m so delighted that Mr. Cash did not realize it was the Oktibbeha County Jail,” Spruill said. “That wouldn’t have been a good song. I’m delighted that he called it Starkville. We got a name out of it and out of this, we get this wonderful event for one of the trail markers. I’m so excited because it will bring people to town and be a part of our community even if they’re just visiting.”
The Mississippi Music Trail markers, placed all over the state, honor other such artists as Stuart, Faith Hill, Conway Twitty, Elvis Presley, among others.