Singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash took part in a fundraiser Thursday evening at the Arkansas Governor's Mansion in Little Rock to benefit the ongoing restoration of her father Johnny Cash's boyhood home in Dyess, Arkansas.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson invited her to hold the event there, calling the Cash house, which has been turned into a museum, "a great asset for the state." Arkansas State University bought the dilapidated home in 2011, carefully restoring it to how it looked when Johnny Cash lived there with his parents and siblings.
The Cash family was one of 500 who applied and were accepted to live in the Dyess Colony in east Arkansas, which was a planned community, created as part of a depression-era New Deal program for farmers. Each family was provided 20 or 40 acres of land, a house, outbuildings and everything they needed to farm, using later earnings to repay the government.
Ray and Carrie Cash moved into the home with their children in 1935, and in an interview with KUAR Thursday, Rosanne Cash said the day they arrived was forever seared in her father's mind.
"He said that his first memory was of going into this new home that really saved their lives, that the government had provided, and that there were five empty cans of paint sitting in the front room. I put that right into a song I wrote called 'The Sunken Lands.' The first line is 'Five cans of paint."
The song was included in Rosanne Cash's 2014 album The River & the Thread, which won three Grammy Awards the following year. Several of the songs were inspired by her learning more about her father and grandparents' experiences in Dyess through the restoration project.
Johnny Cash moved away from the community when he enlisted in the military and his parents left in the 1950s. The house was then lived in by various people for more than half a century until ASU's Arkansas Heritage Sites program bought it after getting the backing of the Cash family.
"When Arkansas State University came to us, to the family and said we want to do this, I immediately said yes. We all said yes because we knew it would be important to my dad," Rosanne Cash said.
"He always talked about where he grew up and was so proud of it, and he had even written a letter to my mother from the Air Force saying every rock, every stone, every inch of dirt is important to me from that place, from Dyess and it was part of who he was. So many of the songs he wrote came from there, 'Pickin' Time,' 'Five Feet High and Rising,' and we just felt that it would honor him in a way that meant something to him."
By the time the restoration finally got underway the house was in poor shape.
"It was almost to the ground, it was falling apart. They got it just in time, seriously," Cash said.
The renovation included lifting the home onto the back of a truck so that the gumbo soil underneath, which would constantly shift causing home foundations to become unlevel, could be replaced. Layers of wall coverings and linoleum were removed, with officials saying much of the original material was still underneath.
The restored house was opened to the public after a dedication ceremony on August 16, 2014. In the first year, Dr. Ruth Hawkins, who has been overseeing the project for ASU, says about 10,000 people visited from 35 countries.
"Not only is the exterior and the frame restored, but they have meticulously furnished the house in period furnishing. Some of the things my grandparents actually had, my aunt and uncle, the last two survivors who lived in that house, have given to the project," Rosanne Cash said.
"My sisters and I have also donated many things to the museum that's now in the Administration Building, including my dad's Air Force trunk and his prom booklet where he had all his friends sign the booklet, report cards, letters. So the house itself is like time travel. When you walk in you feel like you could be in 1940."
An old theater building on the Dyess town circle, which until recently had been little more than the front facade propped by two-by-fours, has been rebuilt and will soon begin serving as a visitor's center. The original theater is where Johnny Cash saw movies as a boy, later sold popcorn and where his younger brother Tommy worked as a projectionist. A grant from the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council covered that part of the project. Hawkins says the building will include a gift shop, show an orientation film and be where people can buy tickets to see the house.
"Now the next phase will be putting all of the outbuildings back at the Cash home, at the farmstead there, so we're looking at building back the barn, putting back a smokehouse, a chicken coop and even an outhouse," Hawkins said.
The fundraiser Thursday evening at the Governor's Mansion will help fund that final phase in the master plan. Work on the house itself was funded in large part through annual benefit concerts hosted at ASU beginning in 2011, which have featured Rosanne Cash, Willie Nelson, George Jones, Kris Kristofferson, Rodney Crowell and many others.
Even before work to restore the house got underway, fans have long sought out the place where Cash grew up, some after visiting Rock and Roll landmarks like Sun Records in Memphis, where Cash made his first recordings. His first single "Cry, Cry, Cry" was released about a month after Rosanne Cash was born.
She notes that her dad's home sometimes then leads visitors to other landmarks. "They go on and go down into the Delta and they see where B.B. King came from and they see where Howlin' Wolf sat on a juke joint porch and they may go on to see William Faulkner's house in Oxford, Mississippi. The Delta and this part of the world is so rich in music and literature and history. I think people around the world are fascinated by it."