Over in Mississippi County, the house where a boy named J.R. Cash first decided he wanted to sing huddles like a dog against the near-constant wind. It was brand new in 1935, when three-year-old Johnny and his family moved there from his birthplace in Kingsland, Ark., taking their place in an experimental farming community set up by the government. The place isn't much to look at these days. The house, with rotten eaves and peeling paint, lists a bit, slowly sinking into the black Delta dirt. If not for the signs out front — a painted sign on plywood installed by the current owner, and a newer aluminum sign on a pole certifying it as a piece of musical history — you might wonder why some farmer hasn't pushed it into a pile with a dozer and turned the land back over to King Cotton.
After years of neglect, Cash's boyhood home and other historic New Deal-era structures in the nearby town of Dyess may get a reprieve, thanks to an effort spearheaded by Arkansas State University and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. On Aug. 4, ASU plans to hold a star-studded benefit concert — the first of what they hope will be an annual Johnny Cash Music Festival — to preserve the Cash legacy and Dyess. Both historians and town officials hope it can bring new opportunities to the faded community.
Built on drained swampland and named for Arkansas's first WPA administrator, William Dyess, almost everything in Dyess was constructed by the WPA, including a large administration building, a commissary, a cannery and a movie theater. Though the government built other farming colonies elsewhere during the Depression (a colony for black farmers was built in Lake View), Dyess features one of the most intact collections of WPA colony structures still standing.
Outside the town, the WPA built clapboard houses for 500 carefully-selected farmers, each house situated on 20 acres with a barn, a corncrib, and outbuildings. One of those farmers was Ray Cash, the father of Johnny Cash. Cash and his family moved into a house about a mile outside of town in 1935, the place still so new that there were paint cans on the front porch. Johnny Cash graduated from high school in Dyess in 1950.
Beth Wiedower is with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. She said that around 6,000 to 8,000 tourists trickle through Dyess every year. The problem for the town — population 405 — is that there's no place for them to spend any money. The town's one store is often closed.
"We want to build on the assets and create a destination for visitors," she said. "But most importantly, we want to give them some opportunities to leave some of their money in town. Right now they're coming through, and there are some days when I can't even buy a Diet Coke when I'm out there."
ASU is in the middle of a restoration of the old administration building. The town deeded the building to ASU some years back. Phase one, the $300,000 revamp of the exterior, should be completed this year. The $800,000 restoration of the interior is still to come. The plan is to use the second floor as office space for city government, while turning the first floor into a museum. Exhibits on the Dyess Colony and the New Deal will feature the Cash family as representative examples of those helped by the resettlement program.
Though the story of Dyess is interesting for a history buff, it's the Cash house that's the big tourist draw. In early 2010, ASU made a $100,000 offer to buy the Cash house from the current owner and resident, but was turned down. Negotiations are ongoing, however, and a statement from ASU said they hope to make an announcement about those negotiations soon. The dream, Wiedower said, is to restore the house to the way it looked soon after the Cash family moved in. Its' current condition gives the wrong impression about the singer's boyhood, she said.
"I think most people think: oh, he grew up so poor, and we see now where the emotion and the anger and the passion from his songs comes from, because of these harsh conditions," she said. "In reality, it was brand new. It was the first new house his parents had every owned... We want to tell that story, not that it was a run down place with no hope. This really was the promised land."
Larry Sims is the mayor of Dyess. He said that after the school closed down 7 years ago, a lot of people thought the town was done for. "I got to looking and said, if we don't do something, our whole town is going to dry up and blow away," he said. "We looked at our strong points, and our weak points. The bad points are that our school closed and everything was just deteriorating and falling apart. The good part was the history and Johnny Cash." Sims said that not many people in Dyess realize how much the Cash legacy could mean. In Sims' office, he has a three-ring binder filled with the names of fans who have visited City Hall.
"Most of them are from overseas. Germany, England, Spain. We've even had some from Vietnam," Sims said. "It's just unreal the amount of people who show up to look at [Cash's home]... they don't know a lot about Dyess history, but that's what we want to tell them while they're here."
By the time you read this, the official lineup and ticket prices for the August benefit concert at ASU's Convocation Center will have been announced at an April 14th press conference. Some of the names that have been reliably kicked around so far are George Jones, Kris Kristofferson, and Johnny Cash's children Roseanne and John Carter Cash, with artists like Kid Rock and others mentioned as interested in appearing at the Cash Music Festival in coming years. All proceeds will go toward preserving Dyess and the Cash Legacy — including the planned museum. Sims hopes it can bring a spark of hope back to his little town.
"You'll see cars coming through all the time with out of state tags, but none of them stop because there's nothing open," Sims said. "Hopefully within the next year or so, we'll have something. Right now, they can't spend any money. That's what we want them to do."
The Cash Festival
Arkansas State University Convocation Center, Jonesboro
7 p.m. Thursday, August 4.
Tentatively Scheduled To Appear
John Carter and Roseanne Cash, George Jones, Kris Kristofferson, and others
TBA, with all proceeds going to benefit the preservation of Dyess and the legacy of Johnny Cash.