Winter is the perfect time to explore the natural stone shelters where native Arkansans once lived
The Observer's friend Mr. Photographer got over to Dyess a while back to shoot some pictures of the restored childhood home of the late singer Johnny Cash. It's a beaut now, restored back to the way it looked when the Cash family first moved in during the darkest days of the Great Depression, complete with period furnishings inside.
It's a far cry from when The Observer first saw it several years ago, a crumbling shack at the wavering and muddy edge of a soybean patch, appointed by a gnarled tree under a wool overcoat of sky. Considering the condition it was in — peeling white paint and plentiful rot, with red trim that looked like it had been painted with a sock on a stick — and the fact that what had once been one of a whole row of identical frame houses on the dirt road, all of which had long since been ground under to make room for the plows, it's kind of a miracle it survived at all.
The Observer and Mr. Photographer went out there with a representative from the Arkansas Department of Heritage, who was then working on getting the money together to buy and restore the sad little house where a giant found his voice. She introduced us to the old gent who had lived there for decades, and who really saved the house, such as it was, from oblivion. Things fall apart. And they fall apart very quickly if there's not a person there to at least patch the roof and put a piece of cardboard over the broken windows. We followed him inside. While broke down and shabby, the magic was still there. For a Cash fan like Yours Truly, standing in the middle of that little room was a very strange sensation. You could almost hear the train a'comin', rollin' round the bend.
The Observer still has a picture of our self standing on the leaning and decrepit porch of that house, all smiles in our coat, the old gent in the background, Your Correspondent looking so heavy that Future Me sometimes fears Past Me will plummet through the rotten porch and thus contribute to the house's further decrepitude.
We haven't been back since the restoration was completed, but we should. You should, too, especially if you've ever been moved by The Man in Black. There's ghosts there, kids. Not the kind you're thinking of here on the cusp of Halloween. But there's ghosts there all the same.
A Cash-related addendum. Flicking through the Internet one night earlier this year, we discovered an old novelty country record released in 1970 and titled "Singing Rice-ipes." Recipes, in other words, all having to do with rice, and all made into country songs. The track titles included "Texarkana Rice," "Sunnyside Rice," "Cripple Creek Casserole" and "Houston Hash." And the voice on the record sounded unmistakably like Johnny Cash's voice.
It's a strange find, a goofy vestige of the pop radio-jingle era. "They scream and shout when he brings it out, that Texarkana Rice," Cash sings. The whole project was sponsored by the rice company Riviana, and we enjoyed it better than we thought we should have, given its corporate provenance. The real mystery, of course, is why Cash would have done something like this. We knew times got bad for him — we've read the stories of him taking an axe to a hotel room wall, or prying open someone else's dashboard with a crowbar. He had a roller-coaster of a relationship with methamphetamines. Could that have been the culprit? Could he have been so geeked up or desperate that a rice commercial eventually struck him as a good idea?
Well, no. As it turns out — when we finally got around to reading the fine print — the voice on the record wasn't Cash's, it was that of a Cash impersonator. In our defense, he's a good one.
So what I want to know is, what was a Johnny Cash impersonator doing making a record about rice? And maybe more importantly — and more mysteriously — what the hell was I doing enjoying it?