Johnny Cash Heritage Festival announced, visitors center opens

Friday, May 27, 2016
Film reels were used for the ribbon cutting for the Dyess Colony Visitors Center in the restored theater building. Johnny Cash's siblings Tommy Cash and Joanne Cash Yates are pictured in the center cutting the film. (DT Photo/Corey Clairday)

Coupled with the grand opening last weekend of the Johnny Cash Boyhood Home Visitors Center--in the building that once housed the Dyess movie theater--was the announcement of a Johnny Cash Heritage Festival to take place annually in Dyess.

Since 2011, the Johnny Cash Music Festival has raised funds for the restoration of Dyess Colony and the Johnny Cash Boyhood Home with yearly concerts in Jonesboro featuring musical talent such as Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Reba McEntire, and members of the Cash family. During a press conference Saturday, Dr. Ruth Hawkins, director of ASU's Heritage Sites program, announced that the festival will be moving to Dyess itself starting in 2017. The festival will also be expanded to encompass more than just music.

The first Johnny Cash Heritage Festival will be Oct. 19-21, 2017, with an academic conference featuring educational panels on Thursday and Friday and music on Friday and Saturday. "For the first time, we will hold a festival in Dyess, in the cotton fields surrounding my dad's childhood home and in the town center of the colony," said Rosanne Cash, daughter of Johnny Cash, who worked with ASU in developing the festival. "We foresee an annual festival that will include both world-renowned artists on the main stage and local musicians on smaller stages, as well as educational panels, exhibits, and local crafts." The main stage will be set up in a field across from the Cash Boyhood Home.

Visitors line up to see the inside of the Dyess Colony Visitors Center Saturday. (DT Photo/Corey Clairday)

"I'm really excited the festival is moving to Dyess," said Joanne Cash Yates, Johnny Cash's sister. "It's about the people, not only the Cash family but the many, many families who survived and made a living in Dyess. Thank you. This is where it should have been all along."

Last weekend--which was also the 80th anniversary of the dedication of the buildings in the town center, the 66th anniversary of Johnny Cash's high school graduation, and the fifth anniversary of ASU acquiring the Cash home--also saw the grand opening of the Historic Dyess Colony Visitors Center. The building it is housed in was originally a shop building. Later a theater was put inside and the whole building burned in 1947. The theater was rebuilt, and a few years later a pop shop was built onto it. When ASU acquired the building, it was nothing more than a facade propped up with 2x4s.

The visitors center is part of Phase 2 of the restoration of Dyess Colony. Dyess Mayor Ken Gilmore said the benefits the town has seen from the increase in tourism have been immeasurable. "What this is doing for us as a community is very good. We're working to continue to improve the quality of life," Gilmore said. "I don't think anyone truly knew or could envision the changes that would come."

Tommy Cash, Johnny Cash's brother, used to work at the theater when he was younger as a projectionist. He even scratched his name into one of the projectors in the 1950s. Though the interior of the building is now totally different, it still had a huge impact on him when he saw it. "It brought me to tears when I went through the buildings this morning," he said. "My mother and father would be very impressed with what's happened."

Dr. Hawkins also announced Dyess Colony will finally get historic marker signs on the interstate in the next month. She said the next projects for Dyess Colony will include rebuilding the farmstead buildings at the Johnny Cash Boyhood Home. These will include a barn, chicken coop, smokehouse, and outhouse. The barn will have rooms for conferences and seminars with the hope that the academic side of the heritage festival can eventually be held there.

"We're projecting the visitors who come here will be leaving behind $10 million a year," Dr. Hawkins said. She said that because admission is minimal, the majority of money tourists spend will be in lodging, restaurants, and craft shops throughout the region.

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