The Days before Dyess: Johnny Cash’s Early Arkansas Roots

For Johnny Cash, the chapter in his early life concerning Kingsland, Arkansas, was a short one but it is nevertheless important, both to him and the history of the state. The following is an excerpt from a paper by University of Arkansas at Little Rock Center for Arkansas History and Culture (CAHC) archivist Colin Woodward in the Spring 2015 issue of the Pulaski County Historical Review. This paper won the 2015 F. Hampton Roy Award.

 Cash…had deep roots in Arkansas, not only in terms of his family history, but in the sense that the songs he wrote were grounded in the people, places, and very soil of his native state. Cash was the godfather of many musical forms in America — not just rock and roll, gospel, and fold, but what would later become known as “roots music.” Perhaps the best example of his roots music can be found in his album Songs of Our Soil. One of the album’s tracks, “Five Feet High and Rising,” immortalized the 1937 flood in Mississippi County, Arkansas. But Kingsland had a deep effect on Cash’s life, too. When he visited his birthplace in 1994, he said it was to “touch my roots again.”

Ironically, one of the most American of America’s singers was born in a town named Kingsland. Perhaps no town is less the domain of kings that Kingsland, which Cash himself once referred to merely as a “wide place in the road.” Kingsland’s name was about as close as the Cash family or any other residents had to royalty. Kingsland has always been a small, working class town. Cash’s time there was brief, but it was a fitting beginning for a man who became one of the great poets of small town America in a home state, Arkansas, know for its rural character…

The full article is available here: The Days before Dyess.

Additional information can be found at the Center’s virtual exhibit titled Johnny Cash: Arkansas Icon here. The exhibit places special emphasis on connections between Cash’s Arkansas roots and his music from hist first performance in Little Rock in 1955 to a 2002 music video.

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