Cash was speaking to reporters on the second floor of the colony’s restored Administration Building, which stands in the heart of Dyess, right next to the façade of the movie theatre attended by the young Johnny Cash and where his younger brother and fellow future country star Tommy Cash ran the projector.
The Cash Home is about five minutes away and is accessible by gravel road. In March of 1935, Ray and Carrie Cash moved into the little five-room house from Kingsland, Ark., their five children in tow.
The Cash family lived in the house through 1953, adding two more kids, Joanne and Tommy—now the immediate family’s only survivors. With the support of the annual Johnny Cash Music Festival—which took place the night before at the Arkansas State University (ASU) Convocation Center, the house has now been restored and furnished according to the recollections of Cash family members.
The single-story house was part of a federal agricultural resettlement community created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal to aid in the country’s recovery from The Great Depression. It provided a fresh start for nearly 500 out-of-work Arkansas farm families.
ASU, in partnership with the City of Dyess, has restored the Cash Boyhood Home as well as the remaining two-story Administration Building, which was the center of the colony. Additional funding will be used to recreate the outbuildings at the Cash Home, including barn, smokehouse, chicken coop and outhouse, as well as the former colony house adjacent to the Cash Home and the movie theater; additionally, historic signage will be erected, and a walking trail between the home and the administration building will be developed.
Rosanne Cash recalled seeing the house in 2011, early into its restoration.
“The progress is startling,” she said. “It’s been restored to the most meticulous detail.”
She credited her aunt and uncle (Joanne Cash Yates and Tommy Cash) for remembering everything from the pots and pans to the curtains and linoleum floor.
“It’s like time travel,” she said. “If my dad walked into the house today, he would be so overwhelmed to see his deepest memories preserved for him and other people. I never expected anything like this.”
Cash also said that she didn’t expect the restoration of her father’s house to impact her so powerfully.
“The whole project has caused an immense shift in my own life,” she said, noting that while she says no to the many continuing requests for her participation in Johnny Cash-related projects, she immediately said yes to ASU.
“My children need to know that two generations back we were cotton families,” said Cash, who was accompanied by three of her daughters.
She recalled the first Johnny Cash Music Festival in 2011, when Marshall Grant, Johnny Cash’s original bass player and Rosanne’s “surrogate father” after he died, suffered a brain aneurysm at the rehearsal and died soon after.
“It was the last conscious day of his life,” she said. “I’m a songwriter, and no way I wasn’t going to use it—and my trip to the house.”
Cash’s acclaimed new album The River & the Thread focuses on her exploration of the Mississippi Delta region where her father grew up and so much of his music—and American roots music—is grounded. Its song “Etta’s Tune” evokes the 65-year marriage of Marshall and Etta Grant, now also deceased; “The Sunken Lands” concerns the Cash family’s plight, particularly the women and especially her father’s hardworking mother Carrie.
“I realized that a modern woman like myself could not do what she did, that there was something steely in here,” said Cash, who was born nearby in Memphis. Speaking of her “life-changing” songwriting experiences emanating from the region, she said, "These are things that I’ve carried with me and inform me as a musician, wife and mother.”
Ruth Hawkins spoke about the area’s “gumbo soil,” that “rolls and moves and shifts,” and made the Cash Home restoration that much more challenging.
“The house was unlevel and literally sunk into the ground,” said Hawkins, executive director of ASU’s Arkansas Heritage Sites.
“The concrete pillars had turned in and we had to move the house off its foundation to dig out the gumbo soil and create a concrete base and then cover it up,” she said. “Literally, most of our money went into the ground!”
Cash remembered visiting the house with her father when she was 12.
“There were enormous trees around it, that are being replanted now,” she said. “It was all boarded up, and he walked around it and looked into every window--with a sense of loss. As a preteen child, I was aware but did not understand.”
She referred to the “profound loss” borne by her father over the accidental death of his older brother Jack in 1944, as well as his 1959 album Songs of Our Soil, which contained the classic hit "Five Feet High and Rising,” about his family's experience during a flood when he was a child.
“It all started to make sense,” she said, adding that when she and her daughters walked through the house just before the press conference--it was “overwhelming and so beautiful.”
“There’s nothing kitschy about it,” she said. “It’s very real.”
“We hope visitors get a sense of who this man was--his values and love of family, community and fellow man,” said Hawkins.
The house, Cash added, will heighten their understanding of her father and his music. "These songs that came from this spot on earth are real, she said, "not an imaginary thing.”
She further pointed out that the story of Dyess should not be “taken out of the context of the New Deal,” which she said “saved the Cash Family.”
“As Americans, it’s very important for us to know about the New Deal,” she concluded.
At the formal dedication ceremony in front of the Administration Building shortly after, standing where Eleanor Roosevelt had stood almost eight decades ago to commemorate the opening of the Dyess Colony, Cash observed, before family members and state and community dignitaries as well as Johnny Cash fans from all over, how hot it was outside.
“The Cash family picked cotton in this country and went home to no air conditioning--and no running water, as my Uncle Tommy reminded me. There were 500 desperate, poor families who applied for aid and came here, and this saved the Cash family. It was our redemption.”
But music, she stated, is “a redemption, too.”
“The songs he sang in the field, he sang his whole life,” Cash said.
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