Grab a front-row seat for a celebration of the “Man in Black” October 15-16, 2021.
Since 2017, Johnny Cash fans from around the world have been making a pilgrimage to his boyhood home in Dyess, Arkansas, for the Johnny Cash Heritage Festival. Held in and around the home and in the adjacent cotton field, the festival has presented some big names, from Kris Kristofferson to Alison Krauss and Rosanne Cash, in northeast Arkansas. The festival went on hiatus in 2020 but is back as a virtual event for 2021.
Rosanne Cash is the virtual headliner, and she will open the festival on October 15 with a performance from her grandfather’s former living room. There will also be programs on “Dyess Memories,” the Cash Folsom50 Project, country music, social justice a Southern cooking demonstration with Chef Scott Peacock and more over two days.
While the festival is a chance to hear Cash’s music where it first began, his boyhood home is a bucket list item for fans on its own. An Arkansas State University Heritage Site, the Historic Dyess Colony was established in 1934 under the Works Progress Administration to provide federal relief to farmers after the Great Depression. It’s named for Arkansas’s first WPA administrator William Reynolds Dyess. His plan was for a colony of small subsistence farms on 16,000 acres of land in Mississippi County, where farmers could produce crops that would yield enough income to allow them to purchase their farmsteads and repay the government.
The first 13 families arrived in 1934. The Cashes moved to Dyess with their five children, including J.R., the following year. Two more children were born in the five-room house on 20 acres. J.R., or Johnny as he became known, lived in Dyess until he graduated from high school in 1950. His music was greatly influenced by his experiences there, including songs “Pickin’ Time” and “Five Feet High and Rising” (about the 1937 Mississippi River flood).
Dyess was more than just houses and cotton fields (although the first cotton boll harvested in Dyess is on display inside Town Hall). There was the Dyess Theatre, where Tommy Cash ran the projector as a teenager, a community center, schools, a hospital, barbershop, cannery, cotton gin, store and cafe.
Johnny volunteered for the Air Force after high school and was stationed in West Germany. He said he ended up in the military “for lack of a better way out of the cotton fields.” He began writing songs in the Air Force and moved to Memphis upon his return to the states. He performed a homecoming show in Dyess in 1968 after the release of “At Folsom Prison.” He played his last concert in Arkansas in Little Rock in 1996 and was inducted into the Arkansas Entertainers Hall of Fame the same week.
Visitors to Dyess should start at the Visitors Center to watch a brief film and view exhibits before heading to the museum in the Administration Building. A guided tour of the Johnny Cash Boyhood Home, located down the road, follows. Tours begin at 9 a.m. Monday-Saturday, with the last tour of the day at 3 p.m. A combination tour of the Boyhood Home and Southern Tenant Farmers Museum in Tyronza is available on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
Proceeds from the Heritage Festival will benefit the Boyhood Home. Tickets for virtual events are $35, and VIP access, which includes an event in Jonesboro, is $75.