In the late summer and fall of 1968, Johnny Cash traveled throughout his native Arkansas with Winthrop Rockefeller, the first Republican governor of the state since Reconstruction. Attracted by Rockefeller’s efforts at prison reform, Cash and his band played six concerts in support of the governor. The band accompanied Rockefeller at large rallies at Winthrop (Little River County), Fayetteville, Harrison, Monticello, Pine Bluff and Hot Springs. It was one of the most political moments in Johnny Cash’s career. And with Cash’s help, Rockefeller won re-election against his Democratic opponent, Marion Crank, in November.
The year 1968 found Cash, Rockefeller and the state of Arkansas at a crossroads. In January, Cash recorded his landmark live album, “At Folsom Prison.” Cash had played at prisons since the late 1950s, but at Folsom, Cash made a grand personal and political statement. After years of drug abuse and self-destructive behavior, “At Folsom Prison” was his comeback album. And in March, he married his longtime love, June Carter Cash. Early in the year, Cash also had agreed to play for Rockefeller.
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Rockefeller needed help. Arkansas was emerging from a series of horrifying scandals involving the prison system. The prisons weren’t the only problem for Rockefeller. The governor also sought to convince voters that he had the right ideas about cracking down on gambling in Hot Springs and raising taxes to pay for better roads and education. But the prisons had garnered the most headlines — nationally and even internationally. From his first moment in office, the prisons weighed heavily on Rockefeller. In January 1967, Rockefeller announced in his inaugural address that Arkansas had the worst prison system in the country. That same month, he released a State Police report that detailed systematic abuse and corruption at Tucker prison farm in Jefferson County. The report related chilling accounts of torture, which included use of the “Tucker Telephone,” an old-fashioned crank phone that sent electric shocks through prisoners. Rockefeller hoped to clean up the prisons by creating a modern, professional penitentiary using an efficient bureaucracy that would assure inmates were better treated.
Rockefeller’s most controversial hire was Tom Murton, who worked first at Tucker and then Cummins. In January 1968, Murton, with the help of a prison informant, dug up three skeletons buried in the levee on the Cummins grounds. With national media on hand, Murton claimed he had found evidence of murder and a cover-up. Murton’s discovery created another public relations nightmare for Rockefeller, who was up for re-election. He fired Murton in March and appointed Robert Sarver in his place. Sarver was the first prison commissioner in the newly created Department of Correction.
As Rockefeller struggled with the prisons, Johnny Cash was riding high from the success of his Folsom live album and new marriage. Long known as a rebel with a dark streak, who popped pills, wrecked cars and trashed hotels rooms, Cash seemed to have vanquished his personal demons. With June Carter at his side, he seemed happier than ever. But in early August, tragedy struck Cash’s band. On Aug. 5, Cash’s longtime guitarist, Luther Perkins, died after falling asleep with a lit cigarette, setting fire to his Tennessee home.
Perkins lived near Cash in Hendersonville, and the two had played together since Cash had returned home from the Air Force and settled in Memphis. When Perkins died from severe burns two days after the fire, Cash had lost perhaps the most important component of his signature “boom chicka boom” sound.
But Cash was not one to stop performing, regardless of setbacks. He carried on with the rest of his band: Marshall Grant on bass, W.S. “Fluke” Holland on drums and Carl Perkins on lead guitar. Also with Cash on stage was his wife, June Carter.
The “Johnny Cash Show,” as it was known, made its first stop for Rockefeller in Winthrop, in Southwest Arkansas. Unlike Cash, Rockefeller was a native of New York who had moved to Arkansas around the time Cash had left it. Now, they were on stage together. At Winthrop, a Rockefeller supporter wrote, Cash provided “foot-stomping music for the crowd.”
Despite Cash’s support for Rockefeller, the singer liked to champion individuals and causes, not political parties. Just as Cash blended folk, rock, blues, country and gospel into his music, his politics were unique to himself. Cash once said that he had grown up “under socialism.” His hometown of Dyess was a New Deal experiment in which the Federal Emergency Relief Administration built farmers houses, gave them land and provided livestock. But nothing was free in Dyess: Farmers were expected to work hard and pay for the houses the government had provided.
Cash was religious, patriotic and preached tolerance. He was a spokesman for disadvantaged groups like prisoners and Native Americans. Cash never identified strongly with one political party, though the right and left have claimed Cash as their own. And while he grew up in the “Solid South,” where Democratic politicians reigned, Cash supported Republican politicians throughout his life. At the concerts for Rockefeller, Cash discussed the plight of prisoners, but he mostly avoided making any grand political statements. His presence was enough.
Cash’s second concert for Rockefeller, at Fayetteville on Sept. 17, proved a historic day for the country singer. With two members of his band grounded because of bad weather, Cash was forced to go on stage with only his drummer. Cash did the best he could to entertain the crowd. Luckily for him, a 26-year-old guitarist named Bob Wootton was in the audience that day.
Like Cash, he was a native of Arkansas. Born in Paris (Logan County) in 1942, Wootton had first heard Cash’s “I Walk the Line” while a boy living in Southern California. Wootton became a guitarist and Cash fanatic who learned all of Luther Perkins’ guitar licks. He was playing gigs in Oklahoma when he heard about the Fayetteville concert.
With more than 5,000 people waiting for the rest of the band to arrive, June Carter told her husband that Wootton could play pretty well. Cash pulled him onstage, and much to his delight, he found that Wootton knew his songs cold, giving a much needed jolt to such classics as the rocker “Big River.” Cash liked the confident young guitarist, who reminded him of himself in his Memphis days.
Cash wrote about the Fayetteville concert in his 1975 autobiography, “Man in Black.” He asked Wootton if he could play like Luther Perkins.
“Nobody can do that,” he remembered him saying. “But I’ll try if you want me to.”
“Get out there and plug your guitar in,” Cash told him. Wootton claimed to know some songs better than his hero did.
“Key of C!” Cash yelled to Wootton before beginning one song.
“You recorded it in D!” Wootton shouted back.
“But I want to sing it in C,” Cash insisted.
“Okay,” said Wotton. “But you recorded it in D.”
Cash was impressed, but he didn’t hire Wootton on the spot. However, he asked him to join the rest of the band at the Harrison concert, scheduled for Sept. 19. At Harrison, Cash again had the Tennessee Three with him. Wootton was more nervous with Marshall Grant and Carl Perkins on stage with him, but he again performed well. Wootton worked as Cash’s guitarist for the next 30 years.
As the election campaign heated up, the prisons continued to grab unwelcome headlines. Marion Crank criticized Rockefeller for wanting to turn the prisons into a “country club.” But Tucker and Cummins prison farms were only just emerging from the dark ages. Men such as Rockefeller and Commissioner Sarver were committed reformers, but they were struggling to maintain control over the prisons. In October, a shooting occurred at Cummins, where guards fired on prisoners who were sitting outside protesting ongoing abuses. None of the inmates was killed, but the violence again showed how far Arkansas had to go when it came to establishing a humane penitentiary.
In October at Monticello, Cash again performed for a large crowd. Rockefeller joked, “I don’t know whether they came to hear his singing or whether they came for the free food or … to hear me.” Whatever the reason, voters wanted him to continue his work. In November, Rockefeller was elected to another two-year term.
On New Year’s Eve, Johnny Cash wrote a letter to himself in which he reflected on the year’s events. For Cash, it had been a time of tragedy and triumph. “I feel that this year, 1968, has been, in many ways, the best year of my life,” he wrote. “It has been a sober, serious year. Also probably the busiest year of my life, as well as the most fulfilling.” He remembered the tragic death of Luther Perkins. But he also noted the many high points, including the concerts for Governor Rockefeller and the “accidental” discovery of Bob Wootton in Fayetteville.
Johnny Cash and Winthrop Rockefeller would meet again in April 1969 at Cummins prison farm, where Cash played his only concert ever for Arkansas inmates. It proved one of the highlights of Rockefeller’s second term. Unfortunately, neither he nor Cash could win the public relations battle over the prisons. In January 1970, Tom Murton published “Accomplices to the Crime,” a blistering indictment of the prisons and the Rockefeller administration. A month later, Judge J. Smith Henley ruled the entire Arkansas prison system unconstitutional — the only time a federal judge has ruled a state prison system unconstitutional. That fall, Rockefeller was again up for re-election. Without Johnny Cash to help him, however, Rockefeller appeared before much smaller crowds. In November, with the prisons again in the headlines, Dale Bumpers crushed Rockefeller in a landslide.
Dr. Colin Woodward is an archivist at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s Center for Arkansas History and Culture. UALR is sponsoring an exhibit, “Johnny Cash: Arkansas Icon,” at the Butler Center galleries, in the Arkansas Studies Institute at 401 President Clinton Ave., Oct. 10-Jan. 24. There will be a reception from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. opening night, 2nd Friday Art Night.