Cashing in on hometown glory

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REUTERS

File photo: Singer Johnny Cash is seen with a stage hand during the taping of his TV show at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee, in this April 16, 1969.

Dyess, Arkansas - It is perhaps fair to say that of all the states in the intriguing tapestry that is America, sleepy Arkansas does not feature at the top of too many travel wish-lists.

A little-known corner of the country, pinned between the southern states of Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee and Texas, the Midwest expanse of Missouri and the flat central plains of Oklahoma, here is a place that feels firmly off the beaten track.

But Arkansas may come more into focus this year if ambitious plans to restore the childhood home of one of its most famous sons come to fruition.

Hidden away at the eastern edge of the state, the small town of Dyess plays host to the house where of one of the US’s most iconic songsmiths, Johnny Cash, lived as a boy.

“The Man In Black” spent most of his formative years in this wooden property, moving in aged three when his family relocated across Arkansas from his birthplace of Kingsland (in the centre of the state) – and staying until he joined the US Air Force in 1950.

Now there are high hopes that the little farmstead – which sits at the end of a dirt track on the edge of town, at 4791 West County Road – can become as famous a tourist site as the one-time address of another American musical legend, Elvis Presley.

This is not so far-fetched an idea. Presley’s flamboyant Graceland mansion sits just 80km from Dyess, across the Mississippi River and the Tennessee state line, in Memphis.

It attracts 600 000 visitors every year – and tourism officials in Arkansas are optimistic that the Cash family homestead can share in some of the passing trade.

The single-storey house is midway through a $10 million renovation programme that will see it restored to something approximating its appearance in the Thirties and Forties. The property is in the hands of Arkansas State University (whose funds helped to secure its purchase from its last owner), and a partial September opening has been pencilled in.

As the house was no longer in the Cash family, the entire refurbishment will take time and effort – but authentic period furnishings and appliances have been tracked down, and Cash’s surviving siblings, Joanne and Tommy, have been brought into the project in an attempt to ensure that the finished version of the property is as close to reality as possible.

Unlike Memphis, which has a rich back-story as the spiritual home of the blues and a hotbed of soul music, Dyess has little in the way of heritage.

It was founded in 1934, one of many planned agricultural settlements created as part of President Franklin D Roosevelt’s “New Deal” to stimulate the US economy amid the Great Depression.

Struggling families were able to lease land to cultivate and work towards ownership. The town was split into 500 farms of 8-16ha.

Cash songs such as Pickin’ Time refer to his family’s laborious work in the cotton fields.

He succumbed to complications from diabetes in Nashville, Tennessee, aged 71, in September 2003. – Daily Mail

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