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ASU-Jonesboro: Johnny Cash’s Sister, Brother Recall Dyess Home Place

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Joanne Cash Yates and Tommy Cash at the Johnny Cash Birthday TributeJoanne Cash Yates and Tommy Cash, the surviving siblings of the late country musicgiant Johnny Cash, cling to precious memories of their formative years on an East Arkansas cotton farm.

Their family’s story of growing up in Dyess Colony, a part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s new Deal Program during the Great Depression, will be introduced in a most personal way next year when the front door opens for fans to enter Johnny Cash’s Boyhood Home.

“I lived there first 17 years of my life. I know where every table was, every lamp, the piano, the pictures,” says Yates about the house where her parents Ray and Carrie Cash raised their seven children: Roy, Margaret Louise, Jack, J.R. (Johnny), Reba, Joanne and Tommy.

“What a joy it is going to be for Tommy and me to go back in that house like it was when we lived there. They say you can’t go back, but Tommy and I are gonna get to.” Yates and brother Tommy will join niece Rosanne Cash onstage during the second Johnny Cash Music Festival on Oct. 5 at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro to discuss the restoration of their home.

Arkansas State University is leading fundraising efforts for the Johnny Cash Boyhood Home Project, which will preserve the heritage of the Dyess Colony. More than $1.4 million has been raised, including $300,000 in proceeds from the first Johnny Cash Music Festival. (This year’s concert stars Willie Nelson, Dierks Bentley, the Civil Wars and Rosanne Cash.)

The redevelopment plan includes restoration of the Cash family home and renovation of the historic Administration Building and Theater Building in the Colony Center. Partnership between the town and ASU alsowill see a recreation of the Cash farmstead outbuildings, historic markers placed throughout Dyess and a walking trail linking the Colony Center and the Cash house.
“They had taken the house off the foundation and put it in the backyard while they restored the foundation. That has been done, and the house is back on the new foundation,” Yates said of the reconstruction in progress on the house her parents lived in from 1935 to 1954. “I can’t wait until we get to go back over there again. We found Mama’s original linoleum floor covering, beneath layers of rugs, in the living room. I walked through that house and cried and remembered all the places and all the times. That house looks so little now when I walk in it,” she reminisced.

Tommy recollects playing outside beneath the cottonwood trees and riding with his father to the cotton gin in Dyess. The former Cash home sits about a mile west of Dyess at West County Road 924. “I used to love to go to that gin and hear those machines run,” says Tommy, whose father grew mostly cotton on 20 acres, along with watermelon, cantaloupes, popcorn and peanuts. “The farmhouse had an artesian well pump. There was an outdoor toilet, a smokehouse and barn.”

The five-room house included a kitchen, dining room, living room, two bedrooms, a bathroom with no running water and front and back porches. The house will be furnished as it was during the 1930s and 1940s, based on recollections of family members. But family memories run deeper than just the physical elements.
“The two major things about our home I remember most was the love of God that my family had. My mother was a very godly woman, and the Bible was read in our house on a daily basis,” Yates said, then reciting word for word the humble prayer of grace that her father prayed over every meal.

“Daddy worked hard. Everybody had a job to do. I have compared our family life to the TV program The Waltons, except they had a larger house. Growing up on the farm, going to Dyess Central Baptist Church, praying about everything, singing in the cotton fields, singing at night when we would come home after supper after the dishes were washed.

“We’d gather around mother’s old upright piano. Mama played the piano. She didn’t know a note of music, but she could hear a song once and play it. She taught Johnny his first three chords on a Sears-Roebuck catalog guitar,” said Yates, who lives between Hendersonville and Gallatin, Tenn. Tommy, too, says their mother was the major musical influence on the family.

“She played the piano at church. She was the assistant pianist, and she played around home, and we had an old guitar and she played a few chords. We’d sing along to gospel songs mainly,” said Tommy, who opened concerts for his brother in 1976 and currently tours with a show of his own hits, such as “Six White Horses,” as well as with a tribute act to The Man in Black.

“I sing 22 of his songs and tell stories only I know about our growing up together and his influence on our family,” said Tommy, also a part-time realtor in Hendersonville, Tenn.

Yates entertains as a gospel performer at Wyndham Nashville, a vacation resort, and sings Sunday mornings at Nashville Cowboy Church at the Texas Troubadour Theatre. With all the to-do going on with their old home place, which is expected to open next June, Yates believes if Johnny is watching that he would be saying, “Wow, they really do care.”

Says Tommy Cash of the upcoming concert, “Joanne and I have been asked to sing ‘Pickin’ Time’ with Rosanne and that happens to be one of my favorite Johnny Cash songs. The lyrics are so indicative of what we grew up on the farm... There’s a lot of our history in that song. “I think it’s an honor for what they’re doing for us, and I think it’s gonna be wonderful, and tourists from all over the world will come to see that house and visit Dyess, Ark. It’s a real thrill for me to realize what is going on over there.”
The redevelopment plan includes restoration of the Cash family home and renovation of the historic Administration Building and Theater Building in the Colony Center. Partnership between the town and ASU alsowill see a recreation of the Cash farmstead outbuildings, historic markers placed throughout Dyess and a walking trail linking the Colony Center and the Cash house.

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