The Winding Stream - The Carters, The Cashes and the Course of Country Music

The house in the Dyess Colony

Seventy-nine years ago on February 26, a baby boy was born in Kingsland, Arkansas to Ray and Carrie Cash. Because they couldn’t agree upon a name, the couple named the infant J.R.  He was one of seven siblings, the others being Margaret Louise, Jack, Joanne, Reba, Roy and Tommy. Times were tough in Depression-era Arkansas and people were looking to the government for some relief. The Cashes were among them.  In March of 1935, the family was selected to be part of an FDR-initiated agriculture project; they re-settled to a place called the Dyess Colony.  There the entire family worked the cotton fields, often singing gospel music while they toiled. Though the move promised change, life in Dyess was still fraught with hardship and loss. On two different occasions the Cash farm was flooded by the rising Tyronza River.  Far worse, the Cashes lost their oldest son Jack in a tragic sawmill accident, an event that would haunt J.R. for the rest of his life.

But music served as balm for the boy. Hymns at the local Church of God played a significant part in young J.R.’s life, as did the sounds of the Original Carter Family on Border Radio.  J.R.’s mother and another friend taught him guitar and he began writing songs. In his teens he played on the nearby Blytheville, Arkansas radio station KLCN. In 1950, he graduated from Dyess High School (he was the class vice president) and enlisted in the Air Force. It wasn’t long after his stint in the military that he made his way to Memphis’ Sun Studios and began recording under the name Johnny Cash.

During the course of his adult life, Johnny Cash sometimes returned to Dyess. Many of his songs reflected the life lived in the colony, most notably “Five Feet High and Rising” about the floods they endured. As a result, tourists have also come to Dyess over the years to see that place that Cash called home in his formative years.

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In recognition of the importance of this site, Arkansas State University and the National Trust for Historic Preservation are working with the City of Dyess and local stakeholders to preserve and promote the rich and unique heritage of Dyess Colony. Work is currently underway to restore the exterior of the 1934 Dyess Colony Administration Building, stabilize the facade of the 1940 Dyess Theater, and display a replica of Cash’s boyhood home.

This August 4, Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, in conjunction with the family of Johnny Cash, will launch a Johnny Cash Music Festival. Proceeds from the festival will go to developing Dyess as a major historical site. The event will take place at the 7500-seat ASU Convocation Center.

John Carter Cash will be hosting the benefit. Entertainers making an early commitment to perform are Rosanne Cash, George Jones, Gary Morris and Dailey and Vincent.

Nashville television producer Bill Carter will produce the Johnny Cash Musical Festival. “This event is just the beginning of a long term commitment to honor and preserve the incredible legacy of Rock and Roll, Country and Gospel Music, of Hall of Famer Johnny Cash,” Carter said. “His home and the museum in Dyess will establish a gathering place for his fans from all over the world to meet and honor Johnny for his great contribution to the world of music.”