By Donnie Summerlin
In September 1974, country music legend Johnny Cash spent several days in west central Georgia to film scenes for an ABC television documentary titled Ridin’ the Rails: The Great American Train Story. Cash hosted and narrated the musical homage to the history of American railroads. It was a memorable occasion for the locals who participated in the production and got to meet with the Man in Black during his brief Georgia stopover. For Johnny Cash, it was a bit of a homecoming.
Cash and the television crew filmed historical reenactments in Pike and Spalding Counties and took a breathtaking train ride through the Georgia countryside. They also shot scenes in Rossville, the Big Shanty Station in Kennesaw, Stone Mountain, and Six Flags Over Georgia in Austell. Among the events highlighted in Georgia for the TV special were the Great Locomotive Chase that took place during the Civil War and a reinactment of the story of train engineer Casey Jones.
During a stop in Griffin, Cash (accompanied by his father Ray) visited the Spalding County jail. The country singer was a high-profile advocate for prisoners’ rights and famously recorded two live albums at the Folsom and San Quentin state prisons in the late 1960s. As Cash talked with local officials outside, the inmates called out to him from the top floor of the jail and asked him to come inside for a visit. Although Cash was asked not to go upstairs, he shouted to them from the parking lot. The Griffin Daily News was on hand to photograph the country legend with excited locals and those photos are available on the Georgia Historic Newspapers website. The issues were digitized with funding from the Spalding County SPLOST via the Flint River Regional Library System.
During his conversation with the Griffin residents, Cash mentioned that he had a grandfather who lived in the area and still had cousins in the surrounding counties. In fact, his great-great-great-grandparents John and Lucy Campbell Cash moved to Georgia after the end of the Revolutionary War and eventually settled in nearby Henry County. Many of Johnny Cash’s descendants also lived in Elbert County before his grandfather William H. Cash moved his family to Arkansas, where Johnny Cash was born. Evidence of his genealogy can be found in the Georgia Historic Newspapers and Chronicling America websites.
Ridin’ the Rails: The Great American Train Story premiered on ABC on November 22, 1974. The nostalgic television special featured Cash performing several train songs including “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “The City of New Orleans,” and “Ridin’ the Rails.” Over the course of an hour, the film captures not just the history of railroads, but also a moment in time when Johnny Cash reconnected with his Georgia roots. The American Rail Club currently hosts the special on YouTube.