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Time to cash in on Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash is a music icon. His name is known worldwide.

That begs the question: Why haven’t we done more as a state to cash in on the fact that he was from Arkansas?

He was born in Feburary 1932 at Kingsland in the pine woods of south Arkansas. Ray and Carrie Rivers Cash had seven children. In addition to the boy known as J.R., there were Roy, Louise, Jack, Reba, Joanne and Tommy.

The Cash family was one of several families from Cleveland County to be chosen to move to the federal government’s Dyess Colony in Mississippi County. So it was that Johnny Cash would leave the Gulf Coastal Plain at an age too young to remember and be raised instead in the Delta of northeast Arkansas.

“The tragic death of Jack Cash in a 1944 sawmill accident haunted young J.R. for the remainder of his life,” Eric Lensing writes in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “His mother introduced him to the guitar, and the local Church of God introduced him to music. He acquired a fascination for the guitar and a love for singing. Cash first sang on radio station KLCN in Blytheville while attending Dyess High School. Upon graduation in 1950, he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force after a brief search for work in Michigan.”

Though Arkansas hasn’t done a good job of claiming the Cash legacy, Johnny never forgot his roots.

In February 1968, he returned for a homecoming show at the Dyess High School gymnasium.

The following September, Paris (as in Logan County, not France) native Bob Wootton came out of the audience to play guitar during a Cash concert in Fayetteville.  Wootton had long been a Cash fan, playing his songs religiously and perfecting the style of the band. Wootton’s chance to fill in came after a flight cancellation left only Cash and drummer W.S. Holland on the stage. Cash was stunned by Wootton’s perfect renditions.

When original lead guitarist Luther Perkins died in a house fire, Wootton was asked to join the Tennessee Three. Wootton performed with Cash until 1997.

One of Cash’s most famous concerts came in April 1969 when he peformed for the inmates at Cummins. In 1980, the Kingsland native became the youngest person ever elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame.

I recently attended a meeting during which a group of business and civic leaders heard updates on Arkansas State University’s plans to not only capitalize on the Cash name but also interpret the history of the Dyess Colony for visitors.

In March, John Milner Associates Inc. completed work on a redevelopment master plan for Dyess that was commissioned by ASU.

The introduction to the plan states, “The New Deal Works Progress Administration Rural Resettlement Program provided a sense of hope and renewal for farming families of the Arkansas Delta whose lives were devastated by the natural and economic disasters of the early 20th century. Springing forth from 16,000 acres of forested swamp bottomland drained and cut for the new town, an army of workers constructed the 28-block town with 500 small farms surrounding it. In town, historically referred to as Dyess Center, several residences were constructed along with a hospital, school, churches, commissary, canning plant and administration building. After a rigorous interview, selected families were each set up with a 10-acre farmstead complete with house, barn, smokehouse and mule. Built on the fundamental values of achievement through hard work . . . Dyess became an incubator for success and optimism.

“Since its incorporation in the 1960s as a small city independent of federal support and control, it is apparent that the town has seen some hard times. The city council has had to contend with a range of serious issues including depopulation, loss of businesses and tax base, needed upgrade of infrastructure and lax code enforcement. However, the tight-knit sense of community lives on.”

Arkansas State, which has an outstanding record of preserving historic Delta sites, can start the process of preserving that which is historic at Dyess. Eventually, though, it will need the support of the Cash estate, private foundations and others to turn Dyess into the kind of tourist attraction it should be.

The location is ideal — just off busy Interstate 55 between Memphis and St. Louis. Tourists visiting Graceland in Memphis will find it easy to drive up to Dyess.

When tourists stop there now, there’s little to see or do. The Cash home still stands, but it’s in private hands, it’s not in good condition and it isn’t open to the public.

“The Johnny Cash house is owned by the Stegall family and occupied by Willie Stegall and his son,” the redevelopment master plan states. “It has been the Stegall family home for over 40 years. Over those years, the family has made improvements and adjustments to the house just as many other families who lived in small frame houses did in the same decades. The house is currently in declining condition, in part because of the way many wood elements are exposed to water and other weather-related sources of deterioration. The house has some unpainted wood components, both in places where the paint has failed and in places where the wood was never painted. Like many old houses, it has an imperfect system for roof drainage. The conditions inside and out are less than ideal, but the Stegall family has sought different ways to improve the house at different times with totally different approaches.”

According to this assessment, the changes the family made to the home in the 1960s and 1970s were logical for the time. A modern kitchen was added. The living room was changed. But the assessment adds, “If the dwelling is to be restored to its original configuration and appearance, these changes will have to be removed. Also it is important that any remaining historic materials and architectural features be preserved.”

Let’s dream:

— The family sells the Cash home to ASU, a foundation or the Cash estate at a reasonable price. It’s restored to its original condition and it’s opened to tourists.

— The Dyess Colony commissary is reconstructed to appear as it once did and opened as a store so tourists will have a place to shop. The original structure was lost to a fire. Only the foundation remains.

— Arkansas State obtains the money needed to transform the Dyess Colony administration building into a visitors’ center.

— The facades of the historic Dyess Theater and the adjoining Pop Shop restaurant are restored. Eventually those facades are incorporated into a new building that will house a small auditorium and a restaurant. The 100-seat theater will show films of Johnny Cash performances and documentaries on his life. The 30-seat restaurant will be leased to a local entrepreneur. Let’s hope it serves catfish, barbecue and other Delta specialties.

— A major marketing campaign is implemented. Prominent signage is placed on Interstate 55.

— An annual Johnny Cash tribute concert is held to raise funds for continued restoration.

As I reported in an earlier post, Arkansas State University has received a grant from the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council to begin restoring the exterior of the administration building and begin stabilizing the theater facade.

There’s much to be done. But at least it’s a start. At least smart people are beginning to understand that we can cash in on Cash while saving an important piece of Arkansas history, this Great Depression resettlement colony that Eleanor Roosevelt visited in 1936.

As the redevelopment master plan points out, “Established on natural swampland, it gave its first residents a fresh start but also replicated the American pioneer experience of taming the wilderness and creating new farms and livelihoods. Dyess also left an indelible mark on American music culture as the town that produced singer and songwriter Johnny Cash. Its influence is particularly evident in Cash’s music and lyrics, many of which reference his family’s experiences as cotton farmers in Dyess.”

Let’s get to work.

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