Johnny Cash’s boyhood Southern home opens for public tours
DYESS, Arkansas — Want to “Walk the Line” where Johnny Cash once played as a child?
Before he changed the music industry with songs like “Ring of Fire” and “Folsom Prison Blues,” Johnny Cash spent his hardscrabble childhood in the small community of Dyess, Arkansas.
The Johnny Cash Boyhood Home, the newest of Arkansas State University’s Heritage Sites, opens Saturday for public tours after a restoration project that includes other historic buildings.
When visitors walk into the home, they are stepping back into the 1930s. Cash family artifacts original to the home include the piano that belonged to Johnny’s mother, his father’s shaving mug and even the original flooring in his childhood bedroom and the living room. The living room linoleum still has burn marks caused by the wood-burning stove.
Other furnishings and objects are of the time period and mostly contributed by donors, said Ruth Hawkins, director of Arkansas Heritage Sites at Arkansas State University. They are based on the photos and memories of Tommy Cash and Joanne Cash Yates, two of Johnny Cash’s siblings.
Period details include a pedestal sewing machine, a battery-operated radio like one Johnny Cash would play at night and the living-room sofa. The period icebox and corner cabinet were painted the apple-green color the siblings remember.
The Dyess Colony was a federal agricultural resettlement community created in 1934, part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal program in response to the Great Depression. The colony provided homes and jobs for about 500 poor farm families, including the Cash family.
Johnny, called JR at the time, was 3 years old when his family moved into a Dyess home in 1935. Johnny spent his childhood in Dyess, attending school and church in the town. He also suffered an enormous loss when his brother Jack was killed in a sawmill accident in 1944. Cash left “JR” behind and became Johnny when he left Arkansas for the Air Force in 1950.
Arkansas was an important influence on Cash, who told audiences how “Five Feet High and Rising” and many of his other songs were influenced by his time living in Dyess.
“The little church in Dyess, Arkansas, has been such an inspiration to me, and (so have) the people from Dyess,” Cash said at the 40th reunion of Dyess High School in 1990, in a video exhibited at the Dyess Colony Museum.
Cash died in 2003, leaving four daughters from his first marriage to Vivian Liberto. Cash and his second wife, singer June Carter Cash, had a son together. June Carter Cash died earlier in 2003.
The annual Johnny Cash Music Festival, which starts on Friday in nearby Jonesboro, has raised almost $2 million to fund the restoration project. Headliners for this year’s sold-out festival include Reba McEntire, Bobby Bare and Loretta Lynn, who are donating their performances, as have artists in previous years.
With the restoration of Cash’s childhood home and nearby Dyess Colony Administration Building complete, work has already begun on the restoration of the historic Dyess Theatre adjacent to the administration building, to be used as a visitor center.
In his 1997 autobiography, “Cash,” he credited his state with inspiring his music. “Back in Arkansas, a way of life produced a certain kind of music.”