Symposium Schedule

Our Musical Genealogy:

Country Music and the American Experience

Oct. 17-18, 2019

Johnny Cash on the Back Porch of the Boyhood Home
Johnny Cash on the Back Porch of the Boyhood Home


A schedule of topics that explore “Our Musical Genealogy: Country Music and the American Experience” has been set for the academic symposium at the three-day 2019 Johnny Cash Heritage Festival, Thursday through Saturday, Oct. 17-19, in Dyess. All symposium sessions will be held in the Dyess Colony Visitors Center and are free and open to the public.

The symposium will run all day Thursday, Oct. 17, and Friday morning, Oct. 18.

Friday afternoon will feature a special “Titans of Film Making” event hosted by Rosanne Cash and featuring three prominent documentarians. This special event will be held at the Dyess Community Center. Tickets are available online.


Thursday, October 17, 2019

9:00 a.m.

Poets & Pioneers: The Birth of American Country Music

In 2017, Sunny Mitchell Theatre Projects (SMTP) received a grant from Sacramento Metro Arts Commission to develop a pilot music in education program for underserved fifth grades in the county. This program sheds light on the diverse roots of American country music and examines country music through the lens of social history.

Third generation Carter family member, Lorrie Carter Bennett, and close family friend and musician, Ronnie Williams, were pivotal members of the pilot program, providing music and first-hand stories of the Carter family.

With arts education on the decline, Americans for the Arts believe that arts programs contribute to students’ overall academic achievement, encourage students to stay in school longer, and enhance opportunities for success in life outside of school. Sharing this project on a larger platform may give the program an opportunity to develop in multiple school districts, ensuring that the legacy of country music, from the Carter family to Johnny Cash and beyond, thrives.

Presenter – Sunny Mitchell (Folsom, Calif.)

10:00 a.m.

Poets & Pioneers: Country Music in the Classroom Breakout Session

The 9 and 10 a.m. sessions will together qualify for two hours of professional development for Arkansas teachers.

Presenter – Sunny Mitchell (Folsom, Calif.)

11:00 a.m.

Building on Traditions: The Origins of Country Music. “American Troubadours: From Courtly Love to Cotton Fields”

The motif of the medieval troubadour has been extensively used by those writing about country musicians and by the performers themselves, from the “Texas Troubadour” Ernest Tubb to songs about troubadours by Johnny Cash and George Strait. Beyond just being used a poetic term for a traveling musician, comparison of the troubadourism’s influence in 12th -14th century European society leads to some interesting reflections on the role of country musicians in shaping culture today. In both societies, music provided talented individuals with humble roots and limited desirable career prospects a means of economic mobility, fame and respect, and critical social influence (seen most poignantly in the life and legacy of Johnny Cash).

Presenter – Aimie Michelle Taylor (Arkansas State University)

Mammoth Spring and the Birth of the Grand Ole Opry

George D. Hay, in his book “A Story of the Grand Ole Opry,” credits attendance at a hoedown in Mammoth Spring, Arkansas, as inspiration for starting The Grand Ole Opry. These images of rural America on and near the Arkansas/Missouri border include the Ozarks native stone homes of people devoted to their radios and that connection to the outside world, a close look at a family during the 1950s-1960s and their floor model short wave radio and sound bites heard from The Grand Ole Opry, the simple country humor of Lonzo and Oscar, ads for Martha White Self-Rising Flour, gospel music, The Carter Family and landmark news items.

Presenter – Barbara Williams (Missouri State University – West Plains)

12:00 p.m.


1:00 p.m.

“History in the Making” – Roundtable Discussion

An update from the staff on the ongoing and upcoming projects at the Historic Dyess Colony.

2:00 p.m.

Cash and His World: Attitudes about Prisons and Corrections as a Part of American Culture and Johnny Cash’s Use of Country Music to Effect Reform

Many of Johnny Cash’s fans were unfamiliar with his commitment to the legal reform of the prison systems in the United States, as well as their spiritual well-being. Cash was a tireless advocate on behalf of the inmates for whom he performed, and often advocated before Congress about the nature and purpose of incarceration. Cash had a particular interest in the betterment of the incarcerated in his native state, even to the point of persuading Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller to match his financial pledge to build a chapel at Arkansas’s Cummins Prison. This presentation seeks to illustrate how Cash’s efforts contrasted with the culture of correction so prevalent in his day.

Presenter – Dr. Revis Edmonds (Little Rock)

6 Degrees of Johnny Cash: The Man Comes Around, and Around and Around

Johnny Cash stood tall in stature and in life; a person of near mythic proportion. His artistic passions influenced music, musicians, culture, and history. He fought for those who could not fight for themselves, while championing those who needed a helping hand. Cash’s good work, good works, and good deeds were always on full display, punctuated with his prolific discography as the soundtrack. “6 Degrees of Johnny Cash: The Man Comes Around, and Around, and Around” will explore these themes by looking at how Cash easily connected to people, places, and things through his music, personal collaborations, and cultural ideologies.

Presenter – LaDawn Lee Fuhr (Arkansas State University)

3:00 p.m.

Drakesboro: Kentucky’s Thumbpicking Community

This documentary will focus on the members of the West-Kentucky thumbpicking community living around the small town of Drakesboro, Ky. The roots of this particular style of picking come from Alice DeArmond Jones, her son Kennedy Jones, Mose Rager, and Arnold Schultz. Merle Travis brought this style to the world through his records and films, and he is honored today in the Merle Travis Music Center, nearby in Powderly, Ky. There is a very strong tradition of thumbpicking still thriving in the community today. People pass the tradition along through friends and family.

Presenter – Daniel Hildenbrandt and Rodney Newton (Owensboro Community College, Kentucky) 

4:00 p.m.

Cash: Music, Legacy, and Redemption

Danny Wilson and Tracy Schlapp formed the band Luther’s Boots to pick up the thread of Cash’s musical and social/political legacy. In 2018, they toured 11 of 14 Oregon prisons playing “At Folsom Prison” to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the album’s release. They have produced “Cash: Music, Legacy and Redemption,” a performance that mixes the stories of adults in custody with Cash musical excerpts sung by Wilson. Schlapp illustrates the performance with projections of her letterpress and linocut images that were used to animate the prison spaces.

Presenter – Danny Wilson and Tracy Schlapp (Portland, Ore.)

Friday, October 18, 2019

9:00 a.m.

Deep as an Ocean & Wide as the Sky: American Country Music’s Relationship to Other Musical Genres

Mixing equal parts music and storytelling, this program demonstrates that American country music did not develop in a vacuum — it grew out of myriad influences of European, African and American musical forms and ideas. It further illustrates the breadth of styles that country music developed into in the 78-rpm era — from the first “authentic” recording in 1922 through the honky tonk songs of the 1950s. Much attention will be given to highlight country music’s connection with early influences (Celtic jigs and reels, eastern European influences, African polyrhythms and syncopation) and its relationships with rockabilly, the blues, gospel, and folk music genres.

Presenter – Christian Stanfield (Memphis) 

10:00 a.m.

How Johnny Cash was Shaped by and Helped Shape a Range of Country Music Genres

This presentation will examine all the genres of music that inspired Johnny Cash and follow him through the various facets of his country music career. It will also include an audio-visual component of video clips and lyrics to help emphasize Cash’s ability to transcend any one genre and in turn helped redefine the country music paradigm.

Johnny Cash’s songs cannot be constrained by any one genre. While he is a country music icon and deservedly belongs in the Country Music Hall of Fame, he is also that rare artist who has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Gospel Music Hall of Fame.

As a boy growing up in Dyess, Ark., Cash emulated the gospel songs his mother taught him. Cash would go on to explore various types of music and would ultimately cross musical genres by recording and introducing his country-based audience to rockabilly, folk, rock, gospel and the blues.

Presenter – Dr. John M. Alexander (Brooklyn, N.Y.)

11:00 a.m.

The List: Reconsidering Rosanne Cash’s Pivotal Album Ten Years Later

Streissguth will focus on how the album, “The List,” proved to be a turning point in Rosanne Cash’s career and the themes in her music. After many years of holding country music at arm’s length, the album signaled an embrace by her of the genre and her legacy, opening the door a few years later to her multi-Grammy Award-winning album, “The River and the Thread,” which explores her native South like no other work of hers. He will present clips of interview material and never-before-heard studio performances.

Presenter – Michael Streissguth (Le Moyne College)

1:30 p.m.

Special Presentation: Titans of Film Making

Three titans in the art of filmmaking will serve as featured presenters for a special event hosted by Rosanne Cash.

  • Pam Baucom, co-producer of the eight-part Ken Burns documentary “Country Music,” which will air on PBS during September. Baucom will be sharing behind-the-scenes stories about the process of putting this massive eight-year project together.
  • Thom Zimny, director of the feature-length documentary, “The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash,” which premiered in March at the South by Southwest (SXSW) Music Festival in Austin.   Zimny will discuss making the documentary, which includes much of the narration in Cash’s own voice.
  • William Ferris, former Delta resident and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Ferris has just won two Grammys for Voices of Mississippi, his historic lifetime work in gathering field recordings of blues and gospel singers and storytellers.

These presentations will be held from 1 to 4:30 p.m. at the Dyess Community Center.  Admission will be $15.

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JCHF Public Presentations Committee
c/o Dr. Adam Long, Chair
Arkansas State University
Heritage Site
P.O. Box 2050
State University, AR 72467
Phone: 870-972-2803