Haze washes a drab, gray film over the Arkansas Delta. Now and then a puff of wind scoops up some grit from dusty fields and flings it into the air, adding to the sultry day’s discomfort.
But in the distance, a tiny, snow-white house winks cheerfully. Handsomely decorated with evergreen accents, its crisp, clean lines emanate coolness and serenity. Inside, the pleasant smell of new construction hangs in the air, an intoxicating mélange of freshly cut timber, linoleum resin and paint that’s not quite dry. It’s the scent of promise and hope, of new beginnings and endless possibilities. No wonder Carrie Cash keeled over and wept when she first stepped inside in 1935.
She and her husband, Ray, were the parents of country music legend J.R. “Johnny” Cash. Johnny was 3 when he and his family — which included siblings Roy, Margaret Louise, Jack and Reba — moved into their new home. The five-room house was compact for a family of seven, but to the Cashes, it was a godsend.
A stroke of luck had brought them to northeastern Arkansas. The Cashes had been struggling to eke out a living when they were selected as one of 500 families to form an experimental planned community, Dyess (pronounced Dice) Colony. Part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, the Depression-era agricultural resettlement program gave participants 40 acres of land and a mule, plus a new home. The colony also offered residents a communal cannery and cotton gin.
Starting May 1, visitors can learn about the program and the Cashes when Historic Dyess Colony: Boyhood Home of Johnny Cash opens to the public. Created through a partnership between Arkansas State University (ASU) and the City of Dyess, the $3.6 million heritage tourism site will include exhibits on Dyess Colony and the Cashes, plus tours of the home.
Johnny’s real home
For years, Johnny Cash fans from across the globe flocked to Dyess — often after visiting Elvis Presley’s Graceland home in Memphis, about an hour south — for the chance to peer at his childhood home from the road. The numbers increased after the popular Cash flick “Walk the Line” was released in 2005. But while the home was one of the few colony structures remaining, it had devolved into a leaning, weathered shack. This didn’t sit well with Joanne Cash Yates.
Yates and her younger brother, Tommy Cash, are Cash’s youngest two siblings, born after the family moved to Dyess. “Johnny Cash quit going over [to see the house] because it was so about to fall down,” recalls Yates. “I remember him saying, ‘I don’t want to go back, because that’s not how I remember that house.’ ”
Dyess Mayor Larry Sims also was distressed about the flood of visitors regularly gaping at the ramshackle home. “Seeing it was giving people the wrong impression — that Johnny grew up in an old, dilapidated house,” he says. “When Johnny Cash lived there, it was a brand new house.”
When the city and university began restoring the house in 2011, people — including Cash fans — were excited. Many scratched notes of thanks or encouragement onto envelopes, napkins and tiny scraps of paper, gently tucking them into the chain-link fence surrounding the property. “Traveled all the way from England to see the famous Johnny Cash house,” penned one M. Patterson. “Devasted [sic] it was closed, but glad it is being restored, will have to come back next year.”
Ruth Hawkins, director of ASU’s Arkansas Heritage Sites program and project overseer, says Cash has an enormous international following because he played so many concerts overseas, which might be why famed UK newspaper the Guardian recently named Dyess one of the top 40 places to visit in 2014, along with such exotic locales as Iceland and Cuba.
The Cash experience
Most visitors will spend about 90 minutes in Dyess. Tours will start in the colony’s renovated Greek Revival administration building, which houses exhibits on Dyess and its impact on Cash and his music. “Pickin’ Time,” for example, was inspired by the long hours Johnny and his family spent in the cotton fields, while “Five Feet High and Rising” references the city’s devastating 1937 flood.
Next, a shuttle will carry visitors to Cash’s home. Thanks to efforts by the two youngest Cash siblings, it looks nearly identical to its 1935 self. The two assisted in the project by sketching or describing each room’s furnishings, and paging through old Sears and Montgomery Ward catalogs to identify items. Then the appropriate pieces were purchased or donated. The one item authentic to the home is the piano.
“Mama would play and we’d sing gospel music every night after dinner,” says Yates. “To see Mama’s piano again — I can’t even describe the feeling.”
Yates says if Johnny were alive today, he would be thrilled with the transformation of their old home and its environs. He also would be honored.
“I was in his bedroom with him, holding his hands, a few days before he passed away,” she says. “And he said, ‘Baby, I wonder, when I leave this world, if anybody will ever care?’ ”
They will, Johnny. They’ve cared since the minute you began singing.
Melanie Radzicki McManus is a freelance writer in Sun Prairie, Wis.