According to the U.S. Census, the population of Dyess, Arkansas, is 515. On Saturday, that number seemed to double as throngs of people descended upon the northeast corner of the state for the dedication of Johnny Cash‘s boyhood home.
Newly renovated by Arkansas State University with funds from the Johnny Cash Music Festival, the house received a visit from the daughter of its former occupant on the day of its reopening.
“I saw the house in 2011 when Arkansas State first purchased it,” Rosanne Cash said. “It was inconceivable that it could look as it does today. To see all the rooms completely restored to a most meticulous and historic detail, because my Aunt Joanne and Uncle Tom have such great memories. They remember everything from the pots and pans, the curtains, and the linoleum on the floor.”
Cash said that if her father — who passed away in 2003 — could see the house now, he would be very impressed. “If my dad walked into that house today, I think he would be so overwhelmed by the feeling of going back in time and to see his deepest memories preserved forever and for other people to see how they lived. I just never expected anything like this, and I have to give it up to the Arkansas State team.”
The Cash family moved into the house in March of 1935, with the Dyess Colony being established in May 1934 as part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal. The family moved from the house in 1953. Rosanne Cash remembers her father bringing her to the area in the mid-’60s.
“I must have been about 12,” Cash tells Billboard. “There were still enormous trees around the house, which have been replanted. The house was boarded up, and there was no one here. I remember my dad walking around the house — every window. There was this sense of loss and heaviness of heart. As a pre-teen child, I was aware of it, but I didn’t quite understand. To begin to realize how deep the loss of his brother Jack was to him and the entire family, and how much it formed a lot of his later work was something I became aware of. Then, of course, all the songs about the soil — it all started to make sense to me after the first visit.”
The night before the house’s opening, the annual Johnny Cash Music Festival took place at ASU’s Convocation Center. Opening up the show was Loretta Lynn, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1988 by Cash. The Kentucky native was in classic form, delivering hits such as “I Wanna Be Free,” “Fist City,” and “She’s Got You.”
Lynn was in good humor for the receptive audience, telling them, “Holler out what you want to hear. If we don’t know it, you can get up and sing it.” The sold-out crowd sang along during her entire set, which closed with her signature hit, 1970’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter.”
Next up was Cash’s former neighbor, Bobby Bare. If you ever have the opportunity to see the versatile performer’s concert, take advantage of it — you’ll be glad you did. Bare is known for ’70s recordings like “Dropkick Me, Jesus” and “The Winner,” and seeing him put those hits with early classics like “Detroit City” and “500 Miles Away From Home” proves what a fantastic entertainer he is.
Bare teamed up with Lynn on “God Bless America, Again,” a song he wrote with longtime Nashville weatherman Boyce Hawkins. Lynn recorded the song with Conway Twitty in the mid ’70s and Friday’s performance marked the only time she had performed it with Bare in concert.
And then there was Reba McEntire. Opening her set with 1983’s “Can’t Even Get The Blues,” the iconic singer took fans on a grand tour of her career from early MCA classics like “How Blue” and “Somebody Should Leave” to ’90s radio staples such as “The Fear Of Being Alone” and “Is There Life Out There.”
McEntire also reached back for a couple of cuts from deep in her catalog, including “Why Not Tonight” (from 1986’s What Am I Gonna Do About You) and the Linda Ronstadt gem “You’re No Good,” which appeared on her 1995 covers album Starting Over.
Each song seemed to get a better response than the last, with the crowd growing louder as her set continued. McEntire showed a timeless quality while interacting with her fans (including an 82-year-old man who approached the stage to snap a photo with his cell phone) and gladly shared the spotlight with her talented band, which includes veteran Nashville players Tony King, Jimmy Mattingly, and steel guitar whiz Mike Johnson. Jennifer Wrinkle, who duetted with Reba on “Does He Love You,” made the most of her moment in the spotlight and brought the crowd to their feet.
The weekend might have been dedicated to the Man in Black, but there was a class in country being taught at the Johnny Cash Music Festival — and the professor’s name was McEntire.