By Sheryl Davis
On Sunday, Feb. 26, the 80th birthday anniversary of Johnny Cash was commemorated with the official restoration launch of his childhood home in Dyess, Arkansas.
Beth Wiedower, director of the Arkansas Delta Rural Heritage Development Initiative, acknowledged this as a moment of real gratification and excitement for the potential success of revitalizing a fading community through its native son.
Wiedower said of the project, “Although much work has gone into the project to date – researching, uncovering, and planning for the restoration, this Sunday’s ceremony will mark the visible start to the preservation of an American icon’s home leading to the revitalization of the town of Dyess and the Arkansas Delta region.”
In April 2011, the house was acquired by Arkansas State University after over forty years of private ownership. During that same month, Dr. Ruth Hawkins, Director of the Arkansas Heritage Sites program at ASU, joined the Cash family in making the official announcement of the project and the inaugural Johnny Cash Music Festival benefit.
“We are pleased that the Cash family has gotten behind this project.” Dr. Hawkins said, “The occasion of his 80th birthday is certainly a perfect time to raise national awareness of the efforts that are ongoing to restore his boyhood home and other properties in the historic Dyess Colony.”
Last summer I was very fortunate to have connected with Ms. Wiedower and Dr. Hawkins who made possible my proposed visit to the Johnny Cash boyhood home as part of a field study and research project for one of my historic preservation graduate classes at SCAD.
On a Tuesday morning in early July, in the 104-degree heat, I made the hour’s drive from Memphis through the stark landscape of northeast Arkansas. It was beautiful. The thick cover of dust from the long, narrow gravel road obscured the home’s initial approach but as I turned into the drive, I saw the historical marker and the house appeared.
At first glance it had a striking and almost disparaging normalcy but even more resonant was its rugged and quiet perseverance, which it almost seemed to don as a badge of honor. Perhaps it was the residual pride of the Arkansas Delta sharecropper, a toil-worn survivor of the Great Depression.
The work of the land and their way of life was very difficult, and Cash never wanted it to be “mythologized,” as his daughter Rosanne has recalled. I think the home’s plain and forthright honesty as an architectural symbolism of this hard knocks shot at the “promised land,” as he referred to it, continues to successfully wield the character and soul of the Cash catalog and the man himself.
With the announcement in April and the inaugural concert fundraiser in October, I had gotten to experience the project during a very active and exciting time, particularly with regard to the removal of the home’s non-historic material and the unanticipated reveal of such high integrity. 90% of the house was found to be original and had been protected beneath over forty years of mostly cosmetic or superficial modernizations like linoleum, faux wood paneling, wallpaper and dropped ceilings.
I was very honored by the opportunity to visit this place where the legend of Johnny Cash was cultivated. To me, this musical prophet of the heartland, his lyrics and signature sound, the biting grit of reality and heartened messages of everyday life are profound, philosophical. The transference of time and place and the humbling authenticity of his early life are forever emblazoned in the storied material culture of his boyhood home that will soon be ready for the world to experience.
To learn about these tender and prolific years before celebrity in one of the most genuine, sensory and intimate of ways is truly a gift that I hope many will come to know personally as it lifts the little town of Dyess into prosperity again.
When I asked childhood friend and classmate A.J. Henson about Sunday’s event in Dyess he responded: “I plan to be there. My memories of J.R. aren’t about his singing although I really enjoy that, but of a good friend and the things we shared together as young men.” Mr. Henson is an honorary co-chair of the project’s Arkansas Steering Committee.
The Johnny Cash Boyhood Home Project is a community revitalization effort via cultural heritage tourism that includes restoration of the boyhood home as well as the rehabilitation of two buildings in the historic town center of Dyess to be utilized as the museum complex. For more information on the project or the Johnny Cash Music Festival, visit www.johnnycashmusicfest.com.