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  • Southern Reverie

Growing Up Johnny Cash

He began most of his concerts by simply introducing himself, “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.” Born J.R. Cash on February 26, 1932 in Kingsland, Arkansas, he was the fourth of seven children born to Ray and Carrie Cash. When J.R. was three years old, the family moved 220 miles to Dyess, Arkansas.


Ray and Carrie Cash were recruited, along with other Arkansas sharecroppers and tenant farmers who had been struck by the Great Depression, to participate in the historic Dyess Colony. Dyess was a New Deal colony established in 1934 as a federal resettlement community under the WPA (Works Progress Administration) and was named for Mississippi County native, William Reynolds Dyess, who developed the plan for a self-supporting agricultural community which would allow 500 poor families to start over with land they could work to eventually own.

The recruits for the colony were carefully screened for eligibility including having farming experience and being destitute through no fault of their own. They also had to be a resident of Arkansas and of good moral character, be in good health, under the age of 50, and white. A board of directors carefully planned and administered the colony and managed the day-to-day activities of the colonists.



The Dyess colony was laid out with a town center which included an administration building, theatre, co-op store, restaurant, and farmsteads stretching out over 16,000 acres of fertile, but undeveloped, Mississippi County land. The first 13 families arrived in October 1934. In March 1935, J.R. Cash and his family settled there on Farm No. 266. They were so overcome by having their own home, that they all sat on the floor and cried.

At age five, J.R. started working in the cotton fields along with his family. The struggles his family and other families faced during this era inspired much of his music and life-long sympathy for the poor and working class.

J.R. Cash (Johnny Cash) as a child

The Cash home is one of the few houses remaining from the Dyess Colony along with the Administration Building and the Theatre where a young J.R. Cash saw his first movie. He lived here until he graduated from high school in 1950.

Johnny’s mother, Carrie, taught him to play the guitar in this home and it was while living here that he lost his older brother, Jack, who he was very close with. In 1944, Jack was pulled into a whirling head saw where he was severely injured and died a week later. He was 15 years old. Despite their struggles, the home was always filled with music and Johnny’s early memories include singing with his family in the fields, listening to the radio, and singing gospel music together. He began writing and playing his own songs at age twelve.

In 2010 and 2011, the Dyess Colony and Johnny Cash boyhood home were restored as an Arkansas heritage tourism site and open to the public for tours. MORE INFO

The road is still dirt leading to Johnny Cash's boyhood home and the house stands alone in a field. The land is still farmed and the day we visited you could hear nothing but the wind blowing across the plain.

One song inspired by Johnny’s life at the Dyess family farm is “Pickin’ Time.”

I got cotton in the bottom land It's up and growin' and I got a good stand My good wife and them kids of mine Gonna get new shoes, come pickin' time

Get new shoes come pickin' time

Ev'ry night when I go to bed I thank the Lord that my kids are fed They live on beans eight days and nine But I get 'em fat come pickin' time Get 'em fat come come pickin' time

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