Monday, August 04, 2008

My Mississippi Manifest Destiny: Johnny Cash's boyhood home

Okay, I'm no longer in Mississippi, but the series continues. At this point in my journey, I'm in Mississippi County, Arkansas.

The Man in Black, Johnny Cash, was born in Kingsland, Arkansas in 1932--but from 1935 until 1951, the late country music legend lived in Dyess, Arkansas at 4791 West County Road 924.

Dyess, originally known as Dyess Colony, was founded in 1934 as a New Deal planned community. As with most of the families living there at the time, the Cash family grew cotton, although later on the Cashes had to rotate crops. Cotton is tough on soil, and they couldn't afford fertilizer.

In Cash: The Autobiography, the Man in Black wrote about his first impression of his home:
And that's when I saw the Promised Land: a brand new house with two big bedrooms, a living room, a dining room, a kitchen, a front porch and a back porch, an outside toilet, a barn, a chicken house and a smokehouse. To me, luxuries untold. There was no running water, of course, and no electricity; none of us even dreamed of miracles like that.

Seventy-three years later, Willie Stegall and his son live in that same house. Their home has all of those miracles. And it still has a front porch--that's your humble blogger on the right.

Stegall, who is about 60, has lived in the Cash--well, of course it's now the Stegall home--since 1971. He seems to enjoy his celebrity status, and his house supplements his income. He charges $5 for a tour--which is well worth the price--and sells T-shirts with a picture of the home for $15--I bought the last one in Mrs. Marathon Pundit's size.

The first thing Stegall showed me was the Cash outhouse. "Everyone wants to see the outhouse--you want to see it too, I'm sure," he told me. Actually I didn't, but if the outhouse is so fascinating to others, perhaps readers of Marathon Pundit will enjoy seeing it. That's it on the right. "It's a shed now," Stegall explained.

He pointed out to me where the Cash planted their crops, that's the field on the left.

I came to the home at a time of a lot of excitement for Stegall and Dyess. Just one week before, Cash's son, John Carter, and his sister, Joanne Cash Yates, stopped by to see the house. "Over there at this spot," Stegall gestured towards the kitchen, "is where the wood burning stove was. The pipe went into the room here." That's what Johnny's sister told me. "And here," he pointed to a spot in the living room wall, "is where Johnny carved his initials. They showed that in the movie."

The movie of course being Walk The Line. Several scenes were filmed in Dyess, but not the Cash home. Paneling now covers Cash's engraving.

Not surprisingly, Stegall has unsolicited offers to sell his house, including one from a museum. After all, as I blogged last week in one of my Clarksdale posts, what remains of Muddy Waters' cabin is on display at the Delta Blues Museum.

But Stegall doesn't want to sell. "My son likes it here," he said to me. If that's not enough, John Carter Cash, when the subject of the offers for the house came up when he visited the home, told Stegall, "If I was you, I wouldn't do anything."

Cash left Dyess, but it never left him. His early hit "Five Feet High And Rising" is about a 1937 Mississippi flood he witnessed. And in in several of the introductions to songs on Personal File. Cash speaks of life in Dyess, including working as water boy for a river dredging crew for $3 a day. But on occasion, as he confides that he would sneak off and listen to the radio, listening to a country music station from Memphis.

It all started in Dyess.

Dyess is also the hometown of another country music performer, Gene Williams.

Next: The confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers

Previous My Mississippi Manifest Destiny posts:
Clarksdale posts:
Shiloh posts:
Tupelo posts:
Natchez Trace posts:
Natchez posts:
Vicksburg posts:
Leland posts:

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