Joanne Cash Yates remembers sitting on the front porch swing of her family's home as a child with her baby doll, slowly drifting back and forth as she sang little songs she made up to pass the time. Her brother Johnny was never far away and doing much the same thing.
"From the time I can remember, he was writing down stuff," said Yates, now 76. "And I remember asking him one day what he was writing. I said, 'Johnny are you writing poems?' And he said, 'No baby, I'm writing songs.' He always called me baby."
Yates went on to be a gospel singer. Her big brother Johnny Cash, who died in Nashville in 2003, grew into one of the most beloved and influential icons in country music history. In private hands, the little, white five-room house surrounded by cotton fields in Dyess, Ark., where they grew up, fell into significant disrepair.
Yates said people from all over the world traveled to northeastern Arkansas to see the home where Johnny Cash was raised. And when they got there, the simple home her mother always kept sparkling clean was falling down.
"They were so disappointed," Yates said.
Soon, thanks to a collaboration between Johnny Cash Music Festival founder and well-known music industry executive Bill Carter, Arkansas State University and members of the Cash family, when fans seek out the home, they'll find it completely restored and furnished to mimic its appearance when the Cash family lived there from 1935 to 1953.
The Johnny Cash Boyhood Home's grand opening is Aug. 16 in Dyess, Ark.
"I'm just hoping I don't break down and cry when somebody comes in," Yates said of opening weekend. "I want (guests) to see the humility of what our parents were. My sisters and myself waxed the floors every Saturday so you could see yourself in them. Mama was extremely clean. That's one of the precious things she taught me. I want them to see the simplicity and the value of that life."
Yates' parents Ray and Carrie Cash were cotton farmers who lost everything in the Great Depression.
They moved to Dyess Colony, an agriculture resettlement colony, as part of President Roosevelt's New Deal and became sharecroppers. The couple shared their small home with their seven children, and Yates' fondest memories are of watching her mother make biscuits in a wood-burning iron cook stove and gathering around her mother's piano with her family to sing church hymns.
When the house opens to the public, visitors will be able to see that piano, something Yates called "a miracle of many miracles."
"We were deciding what pieces to get … and I said, 'I miss my mama's piano most of all,' " she recalled. "Come to find out, the mayor of Dyess had kept mama's piano … stored in the community center, and long story short is that piano has been preserved and restored and is back in the house where it belongs."
The piano is the only original item in the house. Because of concern for preservation, all the other items — from the bowl Ray Cash used to put his change in at night to the decorative railing on the front porch — are replicas.
The renovation process took years. Arkansas State University bought the home in 2011 and covered its $100,000 purchase price and subsequent $370,750 renovation with money raised through Carter's annual Johnny Cash Music Festival, an event started to fund the project.
Carter, an Arkansas native who lives near Nashville, said the chancellor of Arkansas State University approached him at a benefit concert he arranged in Arkansas and asked him to help. He grew up near the Cash family and couldn't say no.
"It's a lot of fun and I enjoy doing it," said Carter, who is gearing up for the fourth Johnny Cash Music Festival on Aug. 15. This year's lineup features Reba McEntire,Bobby Bare and Loretta Lynn.
"I didn't realize the impact he'd had," Carter said of Country Music Hall of FamerJohnny Cash. "When we did that first show, 760 people came from outside the United States. I said, 'Johnny's not here. Why'd you come?' They came out of respect for him. It's just amazing he had such influenced and was so loved. That makes doing something to preserve his legacy worthwhile. He was a great guy. I always tell people that we both joined the Air Force to get out of the cotton field, and I came back and went to college and he came back and became a superstar."
Couch proves difficult
While Carter led the fundraising charge, Dr. Ruth Hawkins, director of Arkansas Heritage Sites at Arkansas State University, headed the home's renovation. She worked tirelessly with Yates and her brother Tommy Cash to rebuild and furnish the home to reflect the memories they have of it from their childhood.
"One of the first things we did was have Tommy and Joanne walk through the house and describe every stick of furniture they remembered, every accessory in the house," she said. "They had phenomenal memories."
Hawkins took those descriptions and started searching for the items in old catalogs from Sears and Montgomery Ward, as well as online. When they found what they thought was the exact item, Hawkins and her team sent a photo to the Cash siblings who verified it.
"They would say, 'Yes, that is exactly like our wood stove,' or 'No, it was a little rounder than that, or 'Yes, that's what the sofa looked like, but it was more of a dark blue than a royal blue, down to the last detail," Hawkins recalled.
When Hawkins had a list of items she was confident were authentic, she said they created something that resembled a bridal registry to let people know what they needed. Then people started donating items. If the items weren't identical to what was described, Hawkins didn't accept them.
One item in particular was a sticking point in the project: the family's couch. It was just a few weeks before they had to be finished, and Hawkins and her team still hadn't found the navy blue sofa and matching chair the Cash children had described. Finally, three weeks before the house was supposed to be complete, they located a set in California, but it was pink and the chair was missing its cushion. Desperate, they bought it, shipped it back and painted the pink fabric blue. Then they took the fabric from the back of the couch, which would be against a wall, and made a cushion for the chair.
"We wound up being able to furnish it exactly to their memories of the way it looked when they were growing up," she said. "And as far as the restoration of the house itself, fortunately they were able to come up with a lot of old photographs that gave us clues."
When Yates and Tommy Cash saw the house for the first time in April, Yates started crying and said she and her brother walked from room to room reliving their favorite memories.
"I spent the first 17 years of my life in that house," Yates said. "You know, when you live in a house as a child and you grow up there, you know where every table was, where every lamp was, the color of the floors, the walls, everything about the house is printed in my memory and in my mind. My brother Tommy and I are the two that are left. You know they say you can't go back, but Tommy and I are going to get to."
And when she gets there, the front swing will be waiting on her.
A boost for Dyess
When Johnny Cash's boyhood opens on Aug. 16 in Dyess, Ark., it's more than a memorial to Cash and his family. The house and the tourists it could attract are a much-needed financial boost to the area that music industry executive and Arkansas native Bill Carter said has been struggling since heavy machinery took over the work of farm hands. About 400 people lived in Dyess in 2010 at the last census, and the average household income is about $35,000.
"It's the most-depressed area of Arkansas and one of the most-depressed areas of the country," said Carter who now lives in Lebanon. "It needs any help it can get. My heart's in Arkansas. My heart is where I grew up."
Dr. Ruth Hawkins, executive director of Arkansas State University's Arkansas Heritage Sites program, has led the renovation of the home. She said that based on comparisons to Elvis Presley's boyhood home in Tupelo, Miss., and a nearby B.B. King museum, the house and its related projects should attract about 50,000 visitors a year to the area, generate 100 jobs and pump approximately $10 million into the northeast Arkansas economy. The Historic Dyess Colony: Boyhood Home of Johnny Cash is an Arkansas State Heritage Site.
"From an economic standpoint, I think this is going to be a tremendous boost for the economy in Dyess, but I also think this will be a real source of pride for them," she said. "You can tell that … they're very proud where they grew up, and I think recognizing that and validating that is real important."