On May 11, 1965, Johnny Cash was arrested in Starkville, Mississippi, for allegedly picking flowers from someone’s property. Cash, who was in town to perform at Mississippi State University, is said to have been on a morning walk when he saw some wildflowers he wanted to pick for his wife.
However, the owner of the property on which said flowers were growing called the police. When the police arrived, they recognized Cash and arrested him on suspicion of trespassing and public drunkenness/ disorderly conduct.
It was one of seven arrests for Cash during what have been called his “tumultuous years” as an outlaw country music star.
“I reached down and picked a dandelion here and a daisy there as I went along, and this car pulls up.” Cash said of the incident.
He spent the night in jail cell E, which is now a supply closet, and was charged $36. Cash later wrote the song “Starkville City Jail” about the incident. Legend says that Cash shared his cell that night with a 15-year-old man named Smokey Evans. After kicking the cell wall so hard that he broke his toe, Cash took off his shoes and gave them to the 15 year old, saying, “Here’s a souvenir. I’m Johnny Cash.”
In 1969, before singing “Starkville City Jail” to the inmates at San Quentin Jail, Cash recounted the experience:
“You wouldn’t believe it, one night I got in jail in Starkville Mississippi for picking flowers. I was walking down the street … and uh, you know, going to get me some cigarettes or something. ‘Bout two in the morning, after a show. I think it was. Anyway, I reached down and picked a dandelion here and a daisy there as I went along, and this car pulls up. He said, ‘Get it the hell in here boy, what are you doing?’ I said, ‘I’m just picking flowers.’ Well, thirty six dollars for picking flowers and a night in jail. You can’t hardly win can ya? No telling what they’d do if you pull an apple or something … I’d like to get back at the fella down in Starkville Mississippi…that still has my thirty six dollars.”
Despite the incident, Cash continued to have a successful career and remained a beloved figure in the world of country music. The story of his arrest in Starkville has become a part of music history and continues to be remembered and celebrated by his fans.
Longtime Cash sideman and friend Marty Stuart, who grew up an hour south of Starkville in Philadelphia, Mississippi, once asked his former boss and father-in-law (he was married to Cindy Cash from 1983 to 1988) what really happened, Rolling Stone magazine wrote.
“He said, ‘Well, what I remember about the night’ — and I still to this day can’t imagine Johnny Cash playing a frat party, which is what the circumstances were — ‘I put on a decent show, but I put on a really good show after the concert was over.’”