Some daylight at Dyess

Mark your calendar for Aug. 4.

That’s when it appears a concert will be held at the Convocation Center on the Arkansas State University campus in Jonesboro to bolster efforts to restore the site of the former Dyess Colony in Mississippi County.

I’ve written about those efforts before.

A quick recap: Johnny Cash was born in February 1932 in the pine woods of south Arkansas at Kingsland in Cleveland County. In 1936, the Cash family moved to Dyess to participate in an experimental cooperative.

Soon after having been elected president in 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt created a number of agencies to battle the Great Depression. The first administrator of the Works Progress Administration in Arkansas was William Reynolds Dyess, who was part of a group of politically powerful plantation owners from Mississippi County. Dyess convinced the Federal Emergency Relief Administation to purchase 16,000 acres of bottomland hardwoods in Mississippi County and then pump $3 million into the area so impoverished rural families could move there from across the state and clear about 20 acres each for cultivation.

The resettlement colony was established in May 1934. Federal officials searched the state’s relief rolls and initially brought almost 1,300 men to the area to begin building roads and homes.

By the time first lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited Dyess Colony in June 1936, there were about 2,500 residents. Ray Cash and Carrie Rivers Cash headed one of the five families that had been selected to move there from Cleveland County. Their son John was identified as “J.R.” in the Dyess High School yearbook when he was the class vice president as a senior in 1950.

Last year, the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council awarded a $337,888 grant to Arkansas State for restoration work at Dyess Colony. The actual home where Johnny Cash was raised remains in private hands, though it appears a restoration will be built as part of the interpretive exhibit.

Proceeds from the August concert will be used to supplement the work already being done by Arkansas State and the National Trust for Historic Preservation at Dyess.

Johnny Cash’s son, John Carter Cash, is expected to host the benefit concert. Among those invited to perform are Rosanne Cash and George Jones. Rosanne, in fact, has already posted a newspaper story about the event on her official website at www.rosannecash.com.

Following the release of the critically acclaimed movie “Walk The Line” in 2005, there was a significant increase in the number of tourists coming to Dyess. They came from not only across the United States but also Canada and Europe. There was a large tour group from Ireland, for example. A Belgian cooking show filmed an episode there. Unfortunately, there was little for these visitors to see or do.

The movie, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, chronicled Cash’s early life in Arkansas, his interest in music and his move out of Arkansas to join the Air Force. Once the movie was released, some of those still living in Dyess began efforts to increase awareness of the community, hosting music events in the old school gym there.

In 2008, Kirkley Thomas and Carmie Henry, who both work for the Arkansas Electric Cooperatives in Little Rock, were lamenting the fact that the state wasn’t doing enough to capitalize on the Cash legacy and other parts of Arkansas’ rich musical heritage. Millions of tourists flock to Nashville, Memphis and Branson each year. Why, Thomas and Henry asked, was this state not doing more to capture those dollars?

Dyess seemed to have potential. It’s located just off Interstate 55, which connects cities with strong music traditions – Chicago, St. Louis, Memphis and New Orleans. It’s a short day trip from Memphis and its many music-related attractions — Graceland, Beale Street, the Rock ’n’ Soul Museum, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, the Sun Studio, the Gibson Guitar factory, etc.

Thomas and Henry headed to Dyess to visit with the mayor, Larry Sims. In 2009, they enlisted the help of Ruth Hawkins, who heads up Delta heritage initiatives at Arkansas State. Hawkins had been instrumental in establishing the Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum and Education Center at Piggott and the Southern Tenant Farmers Union Museum at Tyronza. She also led efforts to restore the Lakeport Plantation near Lake Village.

In July 2009, a meeting of various stakeholders in the project was held in Little Rock. Then-state Sen. Steve Bryles of Blytheville helped secure money for a master plan. After proposals were solicited nationally, the firm John Milner & Associates of Pennsylvania was chosen to conduct assessments and offer recommendations for a redevelopment project at Dyess.

The Dyess Colony redevelopment master plan was completed in March of last year. Soon after that, Arkansas State received the NCRC grant to begin the first phase of the rehabilitation effort.

Working with Hawkins, Beth Wiedower of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and others, the group behind the project began discussing the idea of a Johnny Cash music festival to raise funds and increase awareness of their initiative at Dyess.

Hawkins made contact with Bill Carter, a Nashville producer who was an attorney for the Rolling Stones and has extensive contacts in the music industry. Carter agreed to produce the August event. He had attended college at Arkansas State and is friends with everyone from Reba McEntire to Tanya Tucker.

Among those who will be invited to perform at this or future festivals are Kid Rock, Ronnie Dunn, Sheryl Crow, Kris Kristofferson, Merle Haggard and Travis Tritt.

Meanwhile, restoration work on the Dyess Colony administration building began Jan. 17 with a completion date set for May.

In other words, there’s real progress being made.

John Carter Cash, 40, is the only son of Johnny and June Carter Cash. He has long worked as a music producer for artists ranging from Vince Gill to Elvis Costello to Willie Nelson. The first CD of his own music was released in 2003. He’s also the author of his mother’s biography, “Anchored In Love.”

John Carter Cash has even written two children’s books with a third scheduled for release in 2012. He owns and operates the Cash Cabin Studio near Nashville.

Rosanne Cash, 55, is the oldest child of Johnny Cash and his first wife, Vivian Liberto. She was born in Memphis in May 1955. Johnny Cash was taking radio broadcasting classes at Keegan’s School of Broadcasting and working as an appliance salesman for the Home Equipment Co. in Memphis at the time. Johnny Cash divorced his first wife in 1968.

Rosanne Cash joined her father’s television show at age 18 and went on to study drama at Vanderbilt University in Nashville and the Lee Strasberg Institute in Los Angeles. She has relased 12 albums through the years and recorded 11 No. 1 singles. She won the Grammy Award for Best Country Vocal Performance in 1985. Rosanne also has had a collection of short stories, a children’s book and a memoir pubished.

Having the Cash children involved in this effort is huge.

Finally, it seems, good things are happening for Dyess.

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2 Responses to “Some daylight at Dyess”

  1. scott tatman says:

    Rex, This event sounds great , if it all comes together with the proposed talent lineup…Aug. 4 is on a Thurs. Do you know of anything going on that w/e across the river? Didn’t you go to the “Crossroads” last Summer to the BB King deal? You should ask Don Phillips to send you his pics of Pinetop Perkins’ 95th B-Day party a couple of years ago at the Old Hopson Plantation. He was there with Julia Phillips and the likes of Eric Clapton and others. The pics are fantastic. Let me know if you hear of anything worth taking in that w/e…It would be a good time for a road trip….ST

  2. rexnelson says:

    That does sound like a great excuse for a road trip, Scott. I need to see Don’s photos. I used to work at Delta Regional Authority in Clarksdale with James Butler, one of the Hopson Plantation owners. It’s a fun place — Rex

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