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Rosanne Cash reflects on dad's boyhood home


NOTE: This story was written by Jim Bessman of New York City after interviewing Rosanne Cash, Johnny Cash’s daughter.

            NEW YORK CITY – Plans are well underway for the first annual Johnny Cash Music Festival benefit concert, set for August 4 at the Arkansas State University's Convocation Center.

            The inaugural concert will star Cash's children Rosanne Cash and John Carter Cash, his younger brother Tommy Cash and John Carter's wife Laura Cash, along with country music greats George Jones, Kris Kristofferson, Dailey & Vincent, Gary Morris and Rodney Crowell, as well as Rosanne's and Crowell's daughter Chelsea Crowell. It will raise money to help restore the Johnny Cash Boyhood Home in the agricultural resettlement community of Dyess, Ark., which is between Jonesboro, Ark., and Memphis, Tenn. Arkansas State University (ASU) recently acquired the original Cash home, and also plans the establishment of the Johnny Cash Boyhood Museum in the New Deal Era Administration Building at Dyess.

            "Arkansas State University has been trying to get Dad's house for some time," says Rosanne Cash, who lives in New York, but attended a press conference last month at ASU in Jonesboro. "It's really in danger of collapse."

            The most recent owner of the house, she says, had refused to sell it until ASU decided to build a replica.

            "They finally got it just this past month, and the long range plan is to restore not only the house but the entire colony of Dyess," she says.

            Dyess, Rosanne explains, was actually called a colony when some 500 families--including Cash's--took advantage of the New Deal in establishing a government-supported farm community during the Great Depression. The Cash family settled in Dyess in 1935, moving there from Cleveland County when Johnny--who was then called J.R.--was three years old. He worked the cotton fields from the age of five, and the hardscrabble life inspired many of his songs including the classic "Five Feet High And Rising."

            "The families each got 40 acres and a mule--just like in the movies!" Rosanne continues. "They also got a cow and seeds and other things. But it wasn't just given to them: They had to apply for it, and they had to be people who were known to be good farmers, healthy and sturdy and of good moral character."

            The Cash Boyhood Home had an outside toilet, a barn, a chicken house and smokehouse, but had no running water or electricity. It is one of the few houses remaining in Dyess, where Johnny lived until he graduated high school in 1950.
     "Out of the original 500, only about 60 houses are left," Rosanne notes. "I was there in 1968 when they filmed the documentary Johnny Cash: The Man, His World, His Music. I was 12 or 13 and went with my Dad and he visited the house. At that time there were trees around it and it was still fairly nice-looking. When they got it, it was brand new: He said he had a vivid memory of five empty cans of paint in the middle of the floor because it had been freshly painted. But now it's in catastrophic condition and about to collapse."

            She says that she's now very excited about the restoration.

            "It's very serious because the National Trust for Historic Preservation is involved--and it's Arkansas's heritage," she says. "And it's the university--so it's not like a fast-food tourist stop!"

            Indeed, ASU took an original paint sample from the administration building to a laboratory in order to get an exact match, Rosanne notes.

            "It was like a town hall," she says of the building. "There was a little bank and post office inside, and a little theater--where my dad would go on dates!--and a grocery and café. And they're taking such meticulous care in restoring it to what it was. Everything is exact, down to the trim seen in old photographs. But it will be used for the museum, and Arkansas heritage--and that of that part of the country, and my dad, and the history of the New Deal era. So it's a really important part of our history as well. Forty acres and a mule saved my family!"

            When the idea for a kick-off concert fundraiser was suggested, Rosanne, who has shied away from similar events, immediately agreed to participate.

            "You can't imagine the requests I get to do this or that tribute concert, play, movie or book about Dad, and I've said no to 99 percent of them because they're other people's projects," she says. "But this time my whole family is on board, and we all agree that it should happen because it's a great honor for us--not just for my dad but for the whole family."

            She reflects on the press conference announcing the concert.

            "It was huge!" she says. "There were at least 200 journalists, and tickets are going really fast. It's really exciting and a great honor: How many people do you know whose childhood homes are restored and become part of their states' heritage? It's really moving and a thrill for my family."

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