The Dirt Road To Johnny Cash

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My family has always had property in what you’d call “the country”.  You know – a place where the nearest grocery store is 30 miles away, the stars are unlimited in the night sky and of course good luck getting high speed internet.   So, when they told me that the boyhood home of Johnny Cash was “on a dirt road” – I figured it was the same type of dirt road I’d become used to seeing in southern Missouri where my Grandma once called home.

Pulling off of highway 55 to visit the tiny town of Dyess, Arkansas – I was not prepared for what a real “dirt road” looks like.  About 30 minutes outside of Memphis, the roads here are a combination of dirt, big rocks and lots of dust.   A brown cloud formed as I drove no more than 10 miles an hour in search of the home where Johnny Cash lived as a kid.   My vehicle bounced around so much I feared one of my tires were about to pop.   Thank God for the car wash coupon I had sitting on top of the dashboard.

The slow speeds didn’t bother anybody except for me.  I was the only person around for what seemed like miles.  I kept looking in my rear view mirror, expecting to see a line of cars, trucks or even tractors all waiting for me to kick it up a notch.   But, no.  Absolutely nothing.   I tossed around the description in my head of what I would have to say to triple A if they had to come tow my car.  It’s a bizarre feeling having no idea where you are – 9:00 in the morning.

As I finally pulled up to the property – several official trucks from Arkansas State University were in the small parking lot next door. Crews were putting final touches to the refurbished house.  ASU has taken the lead in restoring this historic piece of property where Johnny Cash lived until he graduated high school.  I arrived a few days before it opened to the public or even the media.  My schedule didn’t allow me to join their grand opening celebration so I decided to stop by a few days early on my way to Little Rock, just to get a glance at the front of the house.

After introducing myself to the crew on site – they told me to “go on in” and that the door was open.

They didn’t have to tell me twice.

The before and after photos of the property are incredible to compare.  The house was in awful condition and big time credit is due for the workers that brought it back to life.  There’s a mix of original flooring and furnishings and some other period pieces that didn’t actually belong to the Cash family.  The piano in the front room is in fact the same piano that was played by Johnny’s mother. The books on the piano are original as well.

If you’ve seen the film “Walk The Line” – you’ll be  mesmerized as you walk from room to room, seeing first hand the images you’ll recognize from the movie.  The small bedroom where Cash and his brother slept and the living room where the old time radio sat are both featured throughout the movie.  The family lived here from 1935 to 1954.

The home was part of a 1930’s program developed during the Depression by FDR.  Farmers were given land, a mule, a small home and money to buy food and plant crops.  If they were successful, they would pay back the government.   The property cost Arkansas State University $100,000.   The high cost was clearly because of who lived in the home.  Driving around the area – the trailers and  boarded up stores along the path to the Cash home wouldn’t come close to that figure.

JOHNNY CASH MUSIC FESTIVAL

Reba McEntire performs at the Johnny Cash Music Festival in Jonesboro, Arkansas

The Johnny Cash Music Festival is an annual fundraiser to cover the cost of restoration, the building of a Johnny Cash museum and also for funding of scholarships.  This year, the lineup included three country music hall of fame acts – Bobby Bare, Loretta Lynn and Reba McEntire.   The event was held on the campus of Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, Arkansas.

Of the three acts – Loretta Lynn was by far the most impressive and perhaps best received by the crowd.  Certainly, the audience was there largely to see see Reba McEntire but as Ms. Lynn walked on stage – a certain electricity could be felt around the Arkansas State Convocation Center.  Reba pointed out early in her set that it was the first time she had ever shared a stage with Loretta Lynn.

Loretta is now the first lady of country music and at age 82 – each performance becomes more special than the last.   She needed help getting to the stage, but once in the spotlight – she was as youthful as ever.  Her musicians surrounded her, she strongly held the wired mic and didn’t have time for small talk — she kept belting out song after song.  Her voice was still great and she didn’t use a teleprompter.

The biggest roar of the night came as she sang her classic “Coal Miner’s Daughter” to the delight of thousands of fans that jumped to their feet out of respect and awe as she left the stage.

For more information about the Johnny Cash Music Festival: http://www.johnnycashmusicfest.com/

 

 

 

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Bill is a travel journalist, broadcaster and freelance writer based in Saint Louis, Missouri. Bill travels all across the country doing positive stories, highlighting people and places making America great. He's the host of the weekly Rediscover America podcast and author of the new book 100 Things To Do In America Before You Die! Bill enjoys parks, talking to strangers, eating medium-rare steaks, playing Pickleball and telling good jokes.