Muddy Waters Takin' Back: The Johnny Cash Boyhood Home

June 16, 2014 — The dead turtles that lined the roads of Mississippi gave way to dead armadillos in Arkansas as we tried to outrun the tornado conditions that TV forecasters had been illustrating with vivid red patches along our route. The ominous dark clouds that covered the broad sky were throwing solid blocks of water the size of counties down onto us, and we were mudding down dirt roads in a Toyota Camry that hated what we were subjecting it to in this remote stretch of country.

The Man Comes Around was playing on our CD player, and it fit the scene. We were actually listening to it because it fit the theme. We were looking for the boyhood home of Johnny Cash.

We were traveling the extreme eastern edge of Arkansas, not too far northwest of Memphis, Tennessee, heading toward a place called Dyess. We were surrounded for miles around by flat farmland, most of it flooded so that it all looked like rice paddies. Finally, in the distance (everything was in the distance), we saw the small white house of the Man in Black.

boyhood home of Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash was born in 1932 in Kingsland, Arkansas. His family moved to Dyess when he was three. It was in Dyess that farm dirt got under his fingernails. In Dyess that his brother died in a violent mill saw accident. In Dyess that he was called J.R., long before adopting the name Johnny to put on his military papers and, later, on his albums.

But Dyess wasn’t really a town at the time. It was a social experiment. It was originally called Dyess Colony, and was an agricultural co-op where poor families were offered land to farm with no money down. Cash’s family got 20 acres and a house. They repaid the country by raising a music legend.

boyhood home of Johnny Cash

Today, the lonely little house at 4791 CR 924 is uninhabited. A historic sign stuck in the dirt road at the edge of the road proclaims to the lonely surrounding farmland the significance of the little, white, one-story, five-room house with its dark shutters carved with crescent moons and its porch swing. The whole thing was well taken care of despite its context.

The house, which was used in the 2005 biopic starring Joaquin Phoenix as Cash, was surrounded by a high chain-link fence that prevented us from getting too close. We didn’t climb it, although the thought crossed our minds since the location was so secluded. We walked the line. Right. A large sign hanging on the fence told us the house was being restored and invited us to leave mementos in an inaccessible box that rose from a wide pool of muddy water.

In two months, the house will officially be open as a museum for tours as part of a larger cultural development project that hopes to see recreations of other buildings on the Cash property and monuments to Dyess Colony history in general.

I hope it does all right, but I wouldn’t trade our lonely, stormy moment in front of Johnny Cash’s boyhood home, the strains of American IV from our car speakers barely heard above the wind. My shoes are still stained with dirt from it. Johnny Cash dirt.

boyhood home of Johnny Cash