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5 Star Stories: Johnny Cash’s upbringing impacted his musical career

Published: Nov. 16, 2021 at 11:19 PM CST
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MISSISSIPPI COUNTY, Ark. (WMC) - The legendary Johnny Cash gave a shout out to watching Channel 5 when he sang about his “Little Old Home Town.”

So, it gives us even greater pleasure to give “The Man in Black” his own 5-star honors, specifically the colony where he grew up.

As we spotlight the people and places that make us proud to call the Mid-South home, this stop is about the Dyess Colony in Arkansas, which is one of four Arkansas State University (ASU)-sponsored heritage sites.

1929 through about 1939 was like a ring of fire for many in the U.S. Nearly half of all banks failed and millions were unemployed during the greatest economic downturn in the history of the industrialized world. And Mother Nature didn’t always help, particularly in Arkansas.

“You had the ‘27 floods, stock market crash, then you had the Great Depression and just horrible conditions,” recalled ASU Heritage Site Director Penny Toombs.

As part of the “New Deal” to help struggling urban and rural white families, the federal government moved them into planned agricultural resettlement communities. The Dyess Colony in Mississippi County, Arkansas, established in 1934, was one of them.

According to ASU, the Dyess Colony provided a fresh start to hundreds of poor Arkansas farmers, like the family of perhaps the state’s most famous native son, Johnny Cash.

Ray and Carrie Cash moved their family of six children into the home in 1935 when Cash, who then went by J.R., was three years old. The Cash home was #266 out of 500 small two-bedroom homes, each with 20 to 40-acre plots of land for farming.

Toombs showed us around the renovated Cash home, which is one of only a few remaining houses authentically furnished under the direction of the surviving Cash siblings.

“Out on the flower boxes at the front of the house, we keep purple in there because that is what the kids remember always being here,” Toombs explained.

There was an outhouse in back of the home, along with a chicken coop and smokehouse. There’s also a quilt rack hoisted onto the living room ceiling, “where the women would work on it. They would pull it down and then when they were finished they would put it back up for space, Toombs said.

The piano Cash’s mother played is in the house with the songbook open to one of her favorite songs, “Unclouded Day.”

Dyess Colony was built on roughly 16,000 acres of once swampy and forested land that those families drained and cleared, themselves.

“After the New Madrid earthquake, there was an area in northeast Arkansas that included Dyess, that became known as ‘The Sunklands’ or ‘Sunken Lands of St. Francis,’” Toombs described.

Two miles away from the Cash home is the Colony Circle that was once the social center of the area where families could shop for essentials.

“Everything was in that center circle area,” said Toombs.

The old movie theater and pop shop look the same today from the outside, but inside they now serve as the Visitor’s Center and first stop of the tour. Next door and also still standing is the Dyess Colony Administration Building.

“Eleanor Roosevelt actually stood up on this platform, this porch, and gave a speech at the opening of Dyess Colony,” related Toombs as we stood at the front of the building.

Inside you’ll find exhibits related to the colony’s development, lifestyle of residents, and how growing up in Dyess impacted Jo Cash’s music. For instance, Cash wrote a song entitled “5 Feet High and Rising” 20 years after the Mississippi River flooded and broke the levies in 1937, forcing his family and most other residents in the colony to evacuate until the water receded. His upbringing in Dyess also likely played a part in his preference for black clothing, a sign of rebellion and solidarity for the downtrodden.

“I wear the black for the poor and beaten down ... living in the hopeless, hungry side of town ...” sang Cash in “Man in Black.”

“He represents them through his voice,” Toombs added.

A voice that captured the hardships and heart of a Mid-South community and solidified Cash’s place in the American songbook -- one more reason to be proud of the place we call home.

Cash lived in the Dyess Colony home until he graduated from high school in 1950. He died in Nashville September 12, 2003. He was 71 years old. In addition to tours of Cash’s boyhood home and the Dyess Colony, the ASU Heritage Sites office offers a combination tour of Dyess and the Southern Tenant Farmers Museum in nearby Tyronza. That office is also looking to expand its education outreach and invites school groups to contact them for special tours and programming.

For more information, click here.

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