By David Robert Weible
Listening to his music, it's easy to picture a young Johnny Cash running around a rural Southern town causing trouble and learning the life lessons that inspired his simple but profound folk, rock, blues, and country tunes.
Well, that rural Southern town was the community of Dyess in northeastern Arkansas, and now fans of the late Man in Black will soon have a chance to do just the same.
Cash moved with his family to Dyess from Kingsland, in southern Arkansas, in 1935, when he was only three. The community was a New Deal resettlement program aimed at taking busted farmers and using their skills to develop new land. The program took 16,000 acres acquired by the government and split them up into small (20- to 40-acre) homesteads that each family was responsible for clearing and converting into productive farmland. To be selected, a family had to prove that they had been successful farmers in the past, and that they were healthy enough to work the nearly impossible "gumbo" soil that was like tar when wet, and like concrete when dry.
"I think the values that Jonny Cash held throughout his life and the values he had on family and concern for his fellow man came from his experiences from Dyess," says Ruth Hawkins, Arkansas Heritage Sites Director at Arkansas State University.
In fact, many of Cash's songs have direct ties to his time in Dyess. The tune "Five Feet High and Rising" recalls the flooding of 1937 that forced the 500 or so families that made up Dyess to flee to Little Rock until waters retreated. There is also "Pickin' Time," which is pretty self-explanatory, and "I'm Busted," which relates his father's troubles during the Depression.
Colonists, as they were referred to in Dyess, were assigned housing based on the number of children they had, and because the Cashes had five young'ins when they moved in, they received a five-room dwelling -- the largest available. At roughly 1,000 square feet, it was no palace, but it was big for them and Cash's mother cried on move-in day. When Cash and his siblings weren't toiling away in the rock-hard dirt, they were singing along with their mother around the family piano.
By the time Cash's parents sold the place in '54, Johnny was long gone to Memphis. The house itself changed ownership a number of times and was difficult to maintain, as the gumbo soil's cracking and weathering easily dislodged its foundation.
With help from the National Trust, Hawkins and Arkansas State University acquired the property in 2011 and quickly set to work on a restoration. Along with some of Cash's remaining family, they organized music festivals in nearby Jonesboro where stars like Willie Nelson and Vince Gill played to raise money for the project.
Most of the restoration cost went into the ground as crews dug a 7-foot-deep pit on the house's footprint to be repacked with more stable soil than the indigenous gumbo. They then poured a new concrete foundation and set the house up on concrete stilts. Inside the house, the original wood paneling was restored and new floors were removed to reveal the original linoleum. In all, the project has totaled roughly $350,000.
The house will open this April as a museum detailing the circumstances and experience of Cash's childhood years.
"We want it to look like they just stepped out the door to go to church," Hawkins says.
But all the same, the house isn't meant to be a shrine to Johnny Cash. Instead, it will be just part of a larger project that includes the restoration of an old community administration building and a theater that seek to explore what life was like for the community's Depression-era residents as a whole -- something Cash's music has been doing for more than 60 years.