The Roots of Johnny Cash

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Though the man in black never really “shot a man in Reno”—don’t believe all the song lyrics—he did pick “cotton in the bottomland” as the son of an Arkansas Delta farmer.

His family’s 1930s homestead, meticulously restored, opened a year ago as a museum. It’s located an hour north of Memphis, Tennessee, in Dyess, a New Deal resettlement colony created in 1934. Along with 500 or so families, the Cashes received a white cottage and 20 acres here and set to work clearing and farming the fertile land.

For Johnny Cash buffs, ephemera on exhibit range from his Boy Scout card to the pillow of his beloved brother Jack. (The 2005 biopic Walk the Line depicted Jack’s death in a childhood accident.)

Led by a guide through the Cash home, tourgoers discover its five rooms as they originally appeared.

Not surprisingly, the family piano (untuned to preserve its innards, though family members love to play it when they visit) holds court in the living room. An old hymnal remains open to “The Unclouded Day,” the first song Cash performed in public.

This is more than a shrine for music lovers.

From its butter churn to the quilt frame that lowers from the living room ceiling, “the house evokes wonderful memories of what life was like for farm families during the 1930s and 1940s,” says Ruth Hawkins, who led the restoration project for Arkansas State University’s Heritage Sites program.

This time capsule of the Depression era is anything but depressing.

Katie Knorovsky (on Twitter @TravKatieK) is an editor at large at National Geographic Traveler. This piece first appeared in the magazine’s August/September 2015 issue. 

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