A Musical Getaway in the Upper Delta
Arkansas’ musical heritage spans the genres of music itself – gospel, rock ‘n’ roll, blues, country and everything in between. Arkansas’ Upper Delta is where you can learn more about the legendary Johnny Cash, Arkansas’ Beatles history and the famous Rock ‘n’ Roll Highway 67.
Ray and Carrie Cash left Kingland, Ark., in 1935 with their seven children and headed north to Dyess Colony Resettlement Area in Mississippi County in search of a better life.
In May 1934, “Colonization Project No. 1” was established in southwestern Mississippi County and named for W. R. Dyess, Arkansas’ 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.
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.
Learn more about Arkansas' amazing musical heritage in the state's Upper Delta
Historic Dyess Colony: Johnny Cash Boyhood Home 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 opened in the recreated 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. The project is a joint effort between the City of Dyess and Arkansas State University.
It started in September 1964. Four young men from Liverpool needed some rest and relaxation. It had been a stellar year for the guys – John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr. In August, the foursome, known worldwide as the Beatles, returned to the U.S. for their American tour, performing in concert 30 times in 23 cities. They had five singles in the Top 5, their first movie, “A Hard Day’s Night,” premiered in the United States, and fans couldn’t get enough of the Fab Four. But the “four” were exhausted and needed some down time. A ranch in Missouri was offered to the group and a small Arkansas town was chosen for the perfect stop to change planes because the airport had a large runway and there wouldn’t be a huge crowd waiting for them. Well, part of that was true.
What no one realized at the time is that three teenagers saw the plane circling the Walnut Ridge Airport and drove out to see what was happening. They arrived just in time to see the Beatles depart from the airplane onto a smaller aircraft. Needless to say, word spread quickly around the small town.
When four of the most recognized celebrities returned to Walnut Ridge that Sunday, nearly 300 people were waiting, to their surprise. And thus, Walnut Ridge became the only Arkansas community the Beatles visited, if only for a short time. In recent years, Walnut Ridge has embraced the Beatles history. There is a life-size sculpture of the Beatles as they appear on the “Abbey Road” album. Nearby, the Guitar Walk, a 115-foot-long by 40-foot-wide guitar based on John Lennon’s Epiphone Casino, honors musicians that played along the historic Highway 67. Each September, the city hosts the Beatles at the Ridge festival. Businesses and storefronts throughout Walnut Ridge now sport Beatles signs, collages and caricatures year-round.
In 2009, sections of US Highway 67 were designated as “the Rock ‘N’ Roll Highway.” The moniker refers to the nightclubs, roadhouses and theaters that played host to up-and-coming musicians in the 1950s and 60s. On any given weekend, you could find Conway Twitty, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Fats Domino or Jerry Lee Lewis performing at one of more of the establishments. Most of the establishments are now gone, but signage along the roadway points out the sites and the historical significance of the area. The Rock ‘N’ Roll Highway 67 Museum, located inside the Newport Economic Development Commission office in Newport, features memorabilia and vintage photos from the nightclubs, juke joints, and theaters that were located along U.S. 67 in northeast Arkansas and hosted musical legends Conway Twitty, Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis during their early careers. The museum is open to the public but continues to be a “work in progress.” Call 870-523-1009 for more information.