By Colin Woodward
On the day of my birthday in late August, I visited Kingsland, Arkansas, in Cleveland County, about an hour south of Little Rock. Kingsland is the birthplace of Johnny Cash. Cash was born there in February of 1932, but the place doesn’t seem to have changed all that much. It’s a very small town of about 450 people. One house had chickens running loose in the front yard. There was a water tower advertising the town name. A couple churches. A city hall that was about the size of a large garage. Many of the roads are gravel, and you can drive through Kingsland before finishing a Johnny Cash song on the radio.
It was a hot and sunny day, and I was there to take pictures of where Cash spent the first few years of his life (the family moved to Dyess, not far from Memphis, in 1935). The town borders a major road, but there was only one place, a truck stop, called the One-Stop, to get a Coke or anything to eat. There was a pretty good size school, though. And if the One-Stop didn’t have fine dining, it was quite a hang-out for the locals, who were friendly and helpful.
The actual location of the house where Cash was born is unknown to me. The house certainly isn’t there anymore, and hasn’t been there for a long time. All I know is that the house was near where the railroad tracks, which still run through the town, meet the Saline River.
I was trying to find the Cash marker that was put up in 1976. Despite the fact that Kingsland is only about the size of a few city blocks, the marker was difficult to find. There is no “Johnny Cash Avenue” or “Man in Black Boulevard” to clue you in. I had to ask a woman named “Peenut” at the One-Stop for directions to the marker. As it turned out, I had driven past it about five times. Eventually, I discovered it was near a church and a basketball court. The marker, which includes a guitar design, was painted a long time ago, and the harsh southern Arkansas sun has bleached it white. The marker’s visibility is not helped by a fence that has been placed around it.
I also wanted to spot the building where Johnny Cash and Johnny Horton had their picture taken together in the 1950s. Back in the 50s, it was the Kingsland post office. It later became a bank. I wasn’t able to find it, so I went back to the One-Stop to ask “Peenut” yet again for directions. The “Cash-Horton” building wasn’t too far from the Cash marker.
And really, in Kingsland, you’re not too far from anything. Still, I needed help. But I wasn’t alone. “Peenut” told me that people from all over come to find the Cash marker and see where he was born. It’s too bad there’s no Johnny Cash Museum or some such in Kingsland, where you could get a mug or t-shirt.
I also ventured to Rison, the seat of Cleveland County (which has a population of about 11,000 people). In Rison, I visited the office of the Cleveland County Herald. There, I looked through some bound volumes of issues from 1976 and 1994, when Cash visited Cleveland County. The 1976 visit to Rison was especially dear to Cash, who called it one of the “biggest kicks” of his life, because he visited the town with his daddy. If you buy the book House of Cash, written by John Carter Cash, there’s a CD inside that has Cash doing a five-minute spoken word segment about the 1976 Rison visit, including a story about his father and the Cotton Belt Line that he set to music.
Rison isn’t big either (about 1,300 people), but the town had a grocery store, Mexican restaurant, and a library, where I did research in old issues of the Herald. Cash’s father, Ray, helped build the courthouse, which sits on a the hill overlooking Rison. The grocery store there is one of those older, small grocery stores that I love going into.
Stan Sadler, who used to work at the Herald, let me borrow some Johnny Cash photographs to take back to Little Rock with me. I didn’t get a chance to meet Sadler, whom I had spoken with via email. But he had the Cash photos waiting for me when I got to Rison, and the images were terrific. Stan’s generosity was one of those friendly acts that are difficult to find outside Arkansas.
Cleveland County was perhaps an odd place to spend my birthday. But for me, following the trail of a famous artist–like a Cash or Faulkner or Hemingway–is just as fun, if not more so, than visiting a historic building or Civil War battlefield. And it won’t be the last Johnny Cash-related place I’ll visit. Dyess is next on my list.
Colin Woodward is a historian and archivist. He is the author of Marching Masters, Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War (University of Virginia Press, 2014). He is writing a second book on Johnny Cash.