BY M. SCOTT MORRIS
The myths started long before country legend Johnny Cash died Friday morning.
"Cash was never in prison; most people assume he was," said John Rumble, senior historian at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville. "He did a lot of prison concerts, beginning in the 1950s, and did some later from Folsom and San Quentin prisons."
Prison is one thing, jail is another. Starkville Police Department records show the singer spent a night in jail there in 1965.
Cash wrote a song about the experience named "Starkville City Jail," which appears on the 1969 release "Johnny Cash at San Quentin." On the record, Cash is heard telling inmates he was arrested by patrolmen while "picking flowers" at 2 a.m., spent the night in jail and was fined $36.
Starkville Police Chief David Lindley said records show Cash may have embellished some of the facts. For instance, there wasn't a Starkville City Jail. Cash was confined at the Oktibbeha County Jail, Lindley said.
"Johnny Cash was arrested by Starkville police officers May 11, 1965, on Highway 82 near the intersection with Washington Street," Lindley said. "They charged him with public drunkenness, and he spent a night in jail. The next morning he posted a $15 bond."
Chester McKee was dean of Mississippi State University's graduate school when Cash came to town that fateful spring.
"He was appearing at the university with his group for a concert," McKee said. "Later that night, he was picking flowers at somebody's house at 2 in the morning."
The concert took place during Cash's well publicized battle with alcohol and drugs. Rumble said that same year Cash was arrested in El Paso, Texas, for trying to take pills across the border into Mexico.
Roy Ruby, who was vice president of student affairs at MSU for 17 years, said Cash looked in bad shape during the concert.
"I was there at the concert, and he looked like death, man," Ruby said.
Ruby said after the concert, Cash hooked up with some local party animals. Cash apparently left in the wee hours and started walking to the University Motel (in the song, it's called the Starkville Motel).
The police found Cash picking flowers at the home of Mrs. J.T. Copeland.
"That was my mother's house," said Dr. John Copeland. "I don't know how many flowers he got. They never presented the evidence. I guess it was mostly primrose and sticks. My mother didn't know anything about it until someone told her several days later."
Story and song
The story has long been local legend around Starkville.
"We didn't move here until 1973," said Rosemarie Moore. "I remember driving by the house one day, and the person I was with pointed and said, That's the house where they arrested Johnny Cash for picking flowers.'"
The story has staying power, even if the song gets mixed reviews. McKee said "Starkville City Jail" put the city on the map, but Ruby said the song could have been much better.
"The greatest tragedy is it wasn't that good of a song," Ruby said. "If it had been a better song and become a hit, Starkville would have been world famous."
A few years later, Cash performed at the University of Mississippi without incident.