An Arkansas Icon: Remembering Johnny Cash

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Although born in Kingsland, this house in Dyess is where Johnny Cash grew up.
Although born in Kingsland, this house in Dyess is where Johnny Cash grew up.

On February 26, 1932, a baby boy was born to Carrie and Ray Cash in Kingsland, a small town located in south central Arkansas. The baby, named J.R., joined siblings Roy, Margaret, Louise and Jack. Kingsland would be home to the Cash family until 1935, when the family of seven headed to Dyess in Mississippi County in search of a better life. The Cashes would grow to nine while living in Dyess, with the addition of Joanne and Tommy to the family.

Moving to Dyess

Ray and Carrie Cash left Kingland, Ark., in 1935 with five children (Joanne and Tommy Cash would be born later) and headed north to Mississippi County in search of a better life.

Why Mississippi County? Four words – Dyess Colony Resettlement Area. In May 1934, “Colonization Project No. 1” was established in southwestern Mississippi County and named for W. R. Dyess, Arkansas’s first Works Progress Administration head, who suggested the idea of giving tenant farmers the opportunity to own their own land to one of FDR’s advisors. The colony was laid out in a wagon-wheel design, with a community center at the hub and farms stretching out from the middle. There were 500 small farmhouses, each with five rooms and an adjacent barn, privy, and chicken coop. The houses were white-washed clapboard, each having two bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen, and a dining room, plus a front and back porch.

School photo of J.R. Cash

 

Moving to Dyess

Ray and Carrie Cash left Kingland, Ark., in 1935 with five children (Joanne and Tommy Cash would be born later) and headed north to Mississippi County in search of a better life.

Why Mississippi County? Four words – Dyess Colony Resettlement Area. In May 1934, “Colonization Project No. 1” was established in southwestern Mississippi County and named for W. R. Dyess, Arkansas’s first Works Progress Administration head, who suggested the idea of giving tenant farmers the opportunity to own their own land to one of FDR’s advisors. The colony was laid out in a wagon-wheel design, with a community center at the hub and farms stretching out from the middle. There were 500 small farmhouses, each with five rooms and an adjacent barn, privy, and chicken coop. The houses were white-washed clapboard, each having two bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen, and a dining room, plus a front and back porch.

Becoming a Legend

Young J.R. had a love of music from an early age. He would listen to his mother, Carrie, sing and play gospel music. She later taught him to play guitar. Carrie saved money so young J.R. could take singing lessons. The story goes that his vocal coach, after three lessons, told him to never take another class and to never let anyone change his singing style. He continued singing and would eventually perform on a local radio show while in high school.

When Cash entered the Air Force, he was not allowed to use initials as his name so he instead he used John R. Cash. A few years later, when Sam Phillips signed Cash and the Tennessee Two to join Sun Records, he used the name Johnny and continued to use the moniker the remainder of his life. Those close to him still referred to him as J.R. or John. But to his masses of fans, he was Johnny.

Cash’s career accomplishments are tremendous. At the age of 48, Cash was the youngest living inductee into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Over the course of his career, he received 11 Grammy Awards and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame. He received the Kennedy Center Honors, the National Medal of the Arts, and the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. He was a best-selling author. He appeared in numerous movies and television productions. Over his nearly 50-year career, Cash release 96 albums and 170 singles.

With his death in 2003, the world lost a musical legend and Arkansas lost one of its most notable sons. However, the life and accomplishments of Johnny Cash live on.

Johnny and wife June in a cotton field near Cash's boyhood home on a visit to Dyess.

 

“Sometimes I am two people. Johnny is the nice one. Cash causes all the trouble. They fight.” Johnny Cash

“The Man in Black” Lives On

To learn more about “The Man in Black,” plan a trip to Historic Dyess Colony: Johnny Cash Boyhood Home. The site includes the Cash home as well as the Dyess Colony Administration Building, centerpiece for one of the nation’s agricultural resettlement colonies under the New Deal. The Cash home is furnished as it appeared when the Cash family lived there, while the Administration Building includes exhibits about the colony and the impact of Dyess on Cash and his music. The Visitors Center is located in the re-created Dyess Theatre and Pop Shop that once stood adjacent to the restored Dyess Colony Administration Building and includes a gift shop, additional exhibits, and a multi-purpose space. Log on to http://dyesscash.astate.edu to learn more.

Soon “The Man in Black,” along with civil rights activist Daisy Bates, will represent Arkansas in the U.S. Capitol. In April 2019, the Arkansas legislature passed a bill to replace the two statutes presently representing Arkansas in the National Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol Building with the figures of Bates and Cash. National Statuary Hall is one of the most popular rooms in the U.S. Capitol Building, and the collection of statutes from individual states is visited by thousands of tourists each day. It’s anticipated that the statutes of Cash and Bates will be unveiled in in mid-2024.

Cash Facts

We asked our friends at Historic Dyess Colony: Johnny Cash Boyhood Home for some tidbits about “The Man in Black.” Here are a few things you may NOT have known about Johnny Cash.

  • He bought his first guitar while serving in the military in Germany.
  • He was an ordained minister.
  • He performed one of his famous prison concerts in Arkansas at Cummins prison.
  • He was arrested for picking flowers in Starkville, Mississippi.
  • He was on an episode of “Columbo.”
  • He has been inducted into the Country Music and Rock ’n’ Roll halls of fame.
  • He was vice president of his senior class.
  • He was a Boy Scout. You can see his card while visiting Historic Dyess Colony: Johnny Cash Boyhood Home.
  • One of his favorite things to cook (and eat) was his own recipe for "Old Iron Pot" Family Style Chili (included in Recipes and Memories from Mama Cash's Kitchen, a cookbook by Johnny’s mother, published in the early 1980s).
  • In 1968, he returned to Dyess for a benefit concert at the high school. While there he visited the home with June and his sister Louise.