Johnny Cash is one of the most influential and highly regarded music artists of the last century. Many of Cash’s more melancholic and grim lyrics in his music were a product of his upbringing.
J. R. Cash, better known as Johnny Cash, grew up in Arkansas. Born in Kingsland, his family moved to Dyess, a town and New Deal colony in Mississippi County, when he was three years old.
Cash grew up in the 1930s, a time when the world was suffering beneath the weight of the Great Depression. Cash felt this particularly hard, born into poverty in a lower class family with very little prospects.
New Beginnings in Dyess, Arkansas
Cash, still just a boy of three years old, moved to Dyess in Mississippi County with his family. His family consisted of his mother and father and his six siblings.
Their move was prompted by the introduction of President Roosevelt’s New Deal projects, a relief scheme designed to alleviate the economic suffering that the people of the United States were experiencing during the Great Depression.
The New Deal plan for Dyess was to give impoverished farm workers an opportunity to have a fresh start. Part of the deal for this new beginning was that every worker could be afforded the opportunity to one day own the land that they were tending.
If your family meets the requirements, you will be eligible to relocate.
Cash’s family found itself to be one of the lucky few that were carefully chosen in this screening process, prompting their move to the experimental new town. Cash ended up working in the cotton fields with his family from the age of five years old.
Cash belonged to a large family, his parents Ray Cash and Carrie Cash had Johnny and his many siblings to care for. This, combined with their financial situation, meant that it wasn’t only Johnny that was working from such a young age, it was his brothers and sisters too.
One tragedy that would leave a permanent mark on Cash during his childhood was the passing of his brother, Jack, who Cash was incredibly close to.
His autobiography details the event, going into depth about how everyone in the family had felt a sense of dread that day. Jack had managed to get a job cutting wood, and despite pleas from Cash to join him fishing, he proceeded to go to his work that day.
His brother, unfortunately, suffered an accident during his work, being pulled into the saw that was cutting the wood and suffering grievous injuries. Injuries that, sadly, he could not recover from, passing away a week after initially sustaining them.
Cash was so close to his brother during his formative years that he later commented on the fact that when faced with a troubling situation, he simply reflected on what his brother Jack would have done.
The hardships and loss that he faced growing up permeated a lot of Cash’s music, whereas a lot of musicians that worked in similar genres, such as country, had an upbeat attitude in their music, Cash’s was be punctuated by the ideas of hardship and struggle.
It was at the age of 18 that Cash left Arkansas, the home he wouldn’t return to for another three years as he enlisted in the military. His military training took him to Texas, where he trained at Lackland Air Force Base, followed by further training at Brooks Air Force Base.
After this, it wasn’t just Arkansas he was leaving, it was the United States. His military training got him stationed in Germany, assigned to the Radio Squadron Mobile in Landsberg, where he spent the next three years.
The Family Home
Back in Dyess, the Cash family home became an important attraction, a monument to both a tumultuous, uncertain time in the United States and to the impoverished roots of the legendary icon. The house is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as “Farm No. 266, Johnny Cash Boyhood Home”.
Despite having suffered flooding and disrepair, Cash’s old home was restored, as part of a Historic Dyess Colony tour. Two of Cash’s siblings helped with the restoration, bringing his childhood home to life in the image of how his siblings best remembered it.