Famous Arkansan: Johnny Cash

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Johnny Cash would often return to his boyhood home in Dyess
Johnny Cash would often return to his boyhood home in 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.

The restored boyhood home of musical icon Johnny Cash in Dyess
The restored boyhood home of musical icon Johnny Cash in Dyess

J.R. Cash was three years old when he went to Dyess. He grew up there. He went to church there. He suffered his first major loss there, when his beloved brother Jack died following a sawmill accident in 1944. He would later say that many of his early songs, like “Five Feet High and Rising,” were inspired by his time in Dyess. He left the community in 1950 to join the Air Force. He would eventually become one of the most influential musicians in the world.

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.

Cash and his wife, June, visited his former home in Dyess in the late 1960s
Cash and his wife, June, visited his former home in Dyess in the late 1960s

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 J.R. Cash live on.

Now in Mississippi County in Arkansas’s Upper Delta, you’ll find 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. The front façade was restored and the remainder of the structure rebuilt. The Visitors Center includes a gift shop, additional exhibits, and a multi-purpose space for orientation films, classes, meetings and special events. Visit http://dyesscash.astate.edu or phone 870-764-CASH for details.

Dyess Colony Administration Building
Dyess Colony Administration Building

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. Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson signed the bill, surrounded by Bates’s goddaughter and Cash’s daughter Rosanne and his sister Joanne. 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.

Governor Asa Hutchinson signs SB75, surrounded by Johnny Cash's daughter Rosanne and sister Joanne, and the goddaughter of Daisy Bates
Governor Asa Hutchinson signs SB75, surrounded by Johnny Cash's daughter Rosanne and sister Joanne, and the goddaughter of Daisy Bates