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There's a video you can watch online of Johnny Cash visiting his hometown of Dyess back in 1968. He drives around the small community with his wife, June Carter, and his sister Louise, past the Dyess administration building and the theater where he watched Tex Ritter and Gene Autry on the big screen. In another shot, he walks through his former home, footsteps echoing in the empty rooms. He points out the spot "where mama's stove wore holes in the floor" and the place where he used to sit glued to the family radio, his young ears absorbing every bit of music they could.
"It sure looks smaller, doesn't it," he says.
Earlier this year, a handful of Cash's kin paid a visit to the nearly 80-year-old house. Like many structures of its vintage, it had seen better days. Rosanne Cash couldn't manage to make it inside the dilapidated house. The singer/songwriter and author got as far as the front porch before she stopped, her eyes filling with tears at the sight of her father's childhood home. Her uncle, Tommy Cash, did go inside.
"I couldn't believe how small those big rooms were," he said, echoing his older brother's observation from many years earlier. It's a trick of time, memory and perspective, the way the rooms and hallways of one's childhood seem to shrink with age.
The Cashes were there with some folks from Arkansas State University, which had just purchased the run-down, still-occupied home with the intention of preserving it. In April, ASU and the Cash family announced their partnership on the Johnny Cash Boyhood Home Project, which entails renovating not only the Cash home, but also the Dyess administration building, which will become a museum dedicated to the legendary performer.
On Thursday, several members of Johnny Cash's immediate family will play a concert — hosted by ASU — to raise money to restore the family home in Dyess to the way it was in back in 1935, when a sharecropper family from Cleveland County moved into the first brand-new house they'd ever known.
Rosanne, John Carter and Laura Cash, Tommy, Joanne Cash and Chelsea Crowell, Cash's granddaughter, will all share the stage with a handful of others who, though not related to Johnny Cash by blood, were bound to the legendary singer through friendships that spanned decades.
"I'm looking forward to seeing some of our old friends, like George Jones and Kris Kristofferson," Tommy Cash said.
The lineup for this festival — likely the first of many — "is very strategic," said Beth Wiedower, of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. "The family, John Carter and Rosanne, wanted to keep this year's lineup close to home."
All of the proceeds from the concert's ticket and merchandise sales will go toward restoring the home in Dyess, which will cost between $250,000 and $275,000 to complete, she said. The three-hour show starts at 7 p.m., and with a dozen or so performers, many of the sets will be on the short side. But there will be plenty of collaborations and "all the potential in the world for a good old jam," Wiedower said.
"This is our first time to do this, so I'm hoping that it will turn out to be something special that everybody can be involved in," Tommy Cash said. "I know that some of Johnny's closest friends have passed on, but many of them are still alive, people like Jack Clement, the great songwriter and producer. We're just hoping that this will be the first of many, many good things going on with that house and the concert, every year."
Ruth Hawkins, a professor in ASU's Heritage Studies doctoral program, is overseeing much of the restoration.
"The Cash family has been extremely gracious and very supportive of what we're doing," Hawkins said. "They like the fact that we are looking at doing an authentic restoration that would not only honor their father's memory, but really the whole legacy of what the town of Dyess is all about."
Hawkins said the festival will likely grow to become more than a single-day event.
"The Cash family has a number of people in mind they would like to invite, and there are others, big names who were invited this year and expressed an interest in coming but just already had other commitments," she said. "We didn't really get started on this concert until January or February, and really we only had about six months to put it together."
The planning for next year's festival will begin the day after this year's, Wiedower said with a laugh, though she was only half joking.
As for the restoration of the home, it should take between a year and 18 months to complete, she said. Crews have recently begun the painstaking process of peeling back the layers of linoleum and Masonite and found that all of those additions actually protected the original surfaces.
"So under the drop ceilings and below the vinyl tiles and pressboard was between 85 and 90 percent original historic fabric," Wiedower said. "It's really exciting and it's all in good shape, believe it or not, because it had been covered up by what looked so dingy and non-promising when I was last in the house."