Click here to see a slide show about Johnny Cash’s childhood home.
Among the farmers’ fields of Mississippi County, Ark., through a couple of jags that aren’t even on the map, there’s a country-music holy site: the blighted little town of Dyess (population 515), where Johnny Cash grew up. You wouldn’t realize this just by pulling into town, unless you happen to stop at the café, where framed, photocopied pictures of Cash are the only public tribute to him. Otherwise, there is no sign, no fuss about it. Johnny Cash grew up here, Johnny Cash left. Now and then he visited, but not for long.
James Mangold’s Walk the Line makes Dyess a somewhat more famous detail of Cash’s life, providing just enough back story to decode the Man in Black’s persona: raised poor; picked cotton for an abusive father; adored by a songbird mother; obsessed with the radio; goofed off the day his idol and older brother Jack was killed working at the sawmill; racked with survivor’s guilt ever since. This last detail informs much of Mangold’s portrait, and the music just happens to come from, well, somewhere.
What the movie never captures is the archaic sense of place in Cash’s songs, an aspect that gets better with age but that has all but evaporated from country music. So much of Cash’s music evolved out of where he came from. The chic-a-tuck of trains, which shook his birth home in nearby Kingsland—that sound was Cash’s rhythmic signature. The gospel songs his mother taught him infused his own music with a kind of reckoning. Perhaps it helped that biblical phenomena came to life in Dyess, in the flood that swallowed their farm in 1937 (fabled in “Five Feet High and Rising”), and in the plague of army worms that crawled across the river and leveled the family crop.
Distilling the biographical blueprint of those songs, that’s where my pilgrimage to Dyess came in, to see the physical realities that would help drive deeper what Cash meant when he wrote in his autobiography that “in Arkansas, a way of life produced a certain kind of music.” I went to Dyess to glean what that way of life must have been, to catch an empathetic vibe from the land—and better, from the house where he grew up, which stands intact but belongs to someone else now. All the deciphering of the Cash mythology seemed to beg for such a trip. His music had been a primer, and Walk the Line was still a few weeks away (and, as I suspected, didn’t answer what I wanted to know). Besides, Graceland had always seemed too easy; the Dakota was depressing; Johnny Cash’s house—unmemorialized, raw, still possessing a bit of Cash’s essence—that was the musical pilgrimage worth taking.
The trip from Little Rock to Dyess took just a couple of hours, with crunk and hot-country and talk shows clogging the FM frequency, not much else on the AM, and none of it connecting with any of the roadside flotsam (dead machinery, car parts, sagging barns). Once in town, I looked for the sawmill where Jack was injured (burned down), sneaked over to Cash’s old school (burned down), and finally got directions to the house: just past a pair of small bridges and down a gravel road, and keep going, down about a mile or so until you see it there on the left, which I did not recognize until I’d passed it several times. For one thing, I was looking for cotton, which they don’t grow in Dyess anymore—not on Cash’s old land, anyway. Soybeans grow there. I think it was a chair tipped over in the yard that slowed me down, that and a satellite dish I recognized from a recent picture. I pulled over, checked for signs of a dog, and meekly walked onto the porch and knocked on the door.
I was told to enter and looked around for any reliable witnesses, saw none, steeled myself, and went on in and saw Willie Stegall sitting in his recliner, his cigar dominating the room, a Grand Prix on the television. Willie wasn’t fazed at all by this visit; he said he’d gotten used to all the attention, though it was rare that someone actually tapped on the door. “A lot of ‘em slow down and take a few pictures, and if you go outside to see, they’ll take right off.” Stegall said he never means them any harm—he’s just curious about the curious—but he does get a kick out of watching the more paranoid Cash fans leap back into their cars and speed away.
He talked about his visitors: reporters from Australia, some cultural council from Memphis, a tourist from China (“Some of ‘em you can’t even understand. So I just say, ‘Yeah,’ and go on.”), and a woman who stuffed her trunk with soybeans, thinking they were cotton. Most recently the cast and crew of Walk the Line had descended, including Joaquin Phoenix himself. Stegall described him as a, “Nice boy … talked his head off.” Stegall said that location scouts had shown up months ago to get a feel for the place, and were disappointed there was no cotton, and so took some measurements and built a replica of the house and slapped it down on a cotton field somewhere in Mississippi instead, he couldn’t remember where.
The house was, admittedly, kind of a mess, with clothes and stuff scattered about. He grumbled something about the maid not coming that week. You put your best effort into a pilgrimage like this, staring around: This was where Johnny Cash played the piano; where his mother read the Old Testament out loud; where his father beat him; where the family mourned by a deathbed. This had all happened, sure, but transposing it onto all of Mr. Stegall’s renovations was tough work. The kitchen had been remodeled. A bedroom was a dining room now. There was carpet. He had Kodachromes of his own life tacked to the wall, which was covered with a pine paneling he’d put up himself. He pointed to the low drop ceiling (yes, of course, no drop ceilings in 1936), and it really wasn’t until I asked about the rustic, dilapidated outbuildings I could see through the sliding glass door that I realized that those were his dilapidated outbuildings (and, of course, his sliding glass door). Every detail he pointed out kept swatting down all my sentimentality. This had been his house for 30 years now, and he was by no means a Cash devotee. A mild fan, maybe, with records stored in a closet, but without even a turntable to play them. No, he said, the fields outside didn’t belong to him, they’d been sold long ago. But I could go out there and walk around if I wanted to.
A soybean field seemed kind of pointless. I stepped out onto the gravel road instead, looked both ways, and admired its length and straightness, which suggested what it meant to walk a couple of miles to town every morning as a boy. (Cash did a legendary amount of walking growing up.) The crunch of gravel underfoot produced a good, thick rhythm. And standing still, you could tap into a Zen-like groove with all the close and distant sounds: one bird twittering, bugs chirping farther off, no trains but instead the high soft whine of cars on the macadam a mile away.
Preparing to leave, I scoped the yard for some memento to take with me. Cash had planted six cottonwoods with his father when they moved here, and only three were left—a withering one in particular that leaned a little pale and bare on the west side of the yard. Just a small branch would do. But I couldn’t reach it. Well, I figured a piece of bark was just as good. Mr. Stegall chastised me for being so cheap: “You don’t want that dirty ol’ piece of that tree,” he said. I saw a brick in the dirt. “How about that brick there? Is it from when the house was built?” He stared. “To be honest with you, I don’t know. But here—” and he leaned down to where the house tilted on a block, grabbed at the siding, and ripped a piece off. “Here you go,” he said, and handed it to me, no ceremony. I took it, but with a weird, deflated feeling. A false idolatry spoiled, though it was probably just as well since you can’t play a Johnny Cash song on just a chunk of house. Well, you could, maybe, but it wouldn’t sound anything like the original.