The Musical Heritage of Arkansas’s Upper Delta

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Abbey Road sculpture in Walnut Ridge
Abbey Road sculpture in Walnut Ridge

The entire Arkansas Delta has a musical heritage rivaled by few other states. The state’s Upper Delta was home to music legends such as Johnny Cash, Albert King, and Charlie Rich and, thanks to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Highway 67, the area became known for the musicians that played along the historic byway.

 

Arkansas's Rock 'n' Roll Highway 67

 

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.

A great place to start to learn more about the region’s musical legacy is the Rock ‘n’ Roll Highway 67 Museum in Newport. The museum tells the story of the role Newport and Jackson County played in the early years of Rock ’n’ Roll. Housed inside the Newport Economic Development Commission and Newport Area Chamber of Commerce building, which also displays local and regional artists’ works year-round.

From Newport to Dyess to Walnut Ridge, the musical heritage of Arkansas's Upper Delta spans decades and genres

In September 1964, four guys from Liverpool were just looking for some “quiet time.” The foursome, also known as the Fab Four, were coming off a monumental year, in which their lives were dramatically transformed. Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr landed at the small airport in Walnut Ridge, Ark., and were whisked away for a few days of rest and relaxation.  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.

 

Guitar Walk in Walnut Ridge

 

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. The plan was to return two days later, with no one realizing that the Beatles had come and gone. Don’t ever underestimate the power of teenagers and the telephone. That Sunday, the four lads returned to Walnut Ridge…and the town was waiting! Literally. That stop became the only town in Arkansas that the Beatles visited together.  And Walnut Ridge has embraced that historic visit. In fact, USA Today released a list of the 10 best places to visit in the world for Beatles history, and there, along with Abbey Road itself, was Walnut Ridge.

 

Your first stop has to be the Beatles Sculpture. The artwork, depicting the group as they appear on the Abbey Road album cover, is entitled “The British Invasion of the Rock ‘N’ Roll Highway,” in referrence to Walnut Ridge’s location along the historic Rock ‘N’ Roll Highway 67. Take a selfie with the Liverpool lads. Come on…you know you want to! A few blocks away, at Cavanaugh Park, visitors will find the Guitar Walk, a 115 foot-long by 40 foot-wide guitar, is based on an Epiphone Casino played by John Lennon, and honors the musicians that played along the nearby Rock ‘N’ Roll Highway 67. The guitar features nine plaques dedicated to some of the country’s musical legends, including Conway Twitty, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Sonny Burgess and Billy Lee Riley. The intro plaque features audio from Gov. Mike Beebe discussing growing up along Rock ‘N’ Roll Highway 67 and the importance music has played in the history of Arkansas. Head to the Lawrence County Library and take in a portion of The Argenta Collection, a photographic exhibit containing 229 images of John, Paul, George and Ringo, that was donated to the city of Walnut Ridge in 2015. It is believed to be one of the largest collections in the world, and many of the images have never been presented in a public display. The photographs are on rotating display at the library throughout the year. The Beatles at the Ridge Music Festival, held in September, has become one of the fastest-growing events in the region and has garnered several awards in the process.

Hello, I'm Johnny Cash

Then there’s the Man in Black, one of the Arkansas Delta’s most famous sons. 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. 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.

 

Boyhood home of Johnny Cash in Dyess


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 is located inside 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.

 

Rosanne Cash and Kris Kristofferson perform at the inaugural Johnny Cash Heritage Festival in 2017.


In 2017, the inaugural Johnny Cash Heritage Festival was held in Dyess. The annual festival, held in October, goes beyond Cash’s musical legacy and creates a great sense of both time and place associated with “The Man in Black’s” early years.

 

Although you can drive past the house and go inside the Visitors Center, for a full tour of the Cash home and the exhibits, the cost is $10 per person. Learn more.