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All Things Johnny Cash

Who would have ever predicted that a little farming project in northeastern Arkansas would plant the seeds for some of the most well-known song lyrics in American music history?

Johnny Cash’s family found themselves in Dyess, in 1935 when they were recruited to the area through President Franklin Roosevelt’s Dyess Colony — a New Deal initiative in Mississippi County.

The Cashes and a few hundred other beleaguered farm families hit hard by the Great Depression were given homesteads to clear and convert to active farmland as part of an endeavor to help the country start to rebound financially. Each was also given a house. Theirs served as Johnny Cash’s childhood home and is featured in the movie “I Walk the Line.”

In 2011, Arkansas State University, as part of The Dyess Colony Redevelopment Master Plan, acquired the Johnny Cash Boyhood Home, which had deteriorated to a shell of its former self. It took a few years, but the white, two-bedroom ranch has been restored with proceeds from an annual Johnny Cash Music Festival, as well as donations. It opened in August 2014, with several members of the Cash family on hand to take the grand tour.

The master plan also calls for increasing tourism appeal by making these attractions more pedestrian friendly by placing historic markers at appropriate locations and creating a walking/biking trail from another nearby preserved building to the Cash home. That neighboring restored building — the Dyess Colony Museum — contains exhibits related to the establishment of the colony and how life there influenced the late Cash’s songwriting, which spanned several genres including country, gospel, folk, blues and rock.

From the visitors’ center, guests can take a shuttle to the Johnny Cash Boyhood Home, less than two miles from the Colony Center. Family details and memories helped preservationists be able to furnish the home with period-accurate pieces to replicate how it looked when the Cashes lived there for almost 20 years until 1954. A few pieces of the family’s original furniture, such as his mother’s piano — where the family often gathered to sing, are viewable as well.

Johnny’s parents, Ray and Carrie Cash, were among the nearly 500 colonist families recruited from all over Arkansas to the historic Dyess Colony. The Cashes moved to Dyess in March 1935 with their five children, Roy, 13; Louise, 11; Jack, 5; Johnny (known then as J. R.), 3; and Reba, 1. Two more children, Joanne and Tommy, were born in Dyess.

The musical icon lived in town until he graduated from high school in 1950. His songs like “Pickin’ Time” and “Five Feet High and Rising” depict the formative years he spent in Dyess. The former talks about time spent in the cotton fields; the latter references the 1937 flood that temporarily forced families out of Dyess.

He is no doubt the most famous resident, and he’s also the most cherished. Another tribute to him will kick off in 2017 with the Johnny Cash Heritage Festival, which is slated for Oct. 19-21 in Dyess. A visit to Dyess is a literal trip down musical memory lane.

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