THE 1930S HAD NOT BEEN KIND to the once-mighty American farmer. Ravaged by the Great Depression, those charged with growing food and raw materials for the rest of the country (and the rest of the world) were just as down and out as the next guy. Prices plunged, money disappeared, and countless acres were dying. But when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt stepped in with his New Deal, Ray Cash was all ears. What interested the World War I veteran and struggling family man most was Roosevelt’s Federal Emergency Relief Administration. Under its auspices, folks were relocated to government-purchased land they could pay back over time with crop proceeds. And if selected, they’d receive a barn and a mule to work the twenty-acre plots.
Certainly sounded like a deal—especially in the face of all the obstacles facing the elder Cash. “My father rode the rails looking for work of any kind, anywhere to make a few dollars to feed us on,” Johnny Cash wrote in the liner notes of his Grammy-winning 1996 album, Unchained. “We lived by [the] railroad track that I rode with my uncle on at the age of three. When my father had exhausted every effort to find work near home, he’d hop a freight going anywhere if the doors were empty on the boxcars. He’d come back the same way, days or weeks later, jumping off in front of our house, as the train slowed down to stop in Kingsland.”
The sound of the Rock Island locomotive whistle across the cotton fields might mean Cash’s father was coming home with a few dollars—or maybe nothing at all. So in the winter of 1935, Ray and Carrie Rivers Cash and their six youngins (including three-year-old J.R.—Johnny’s given name until 1950 when Air Force brass asked him to choose a proper moniker for better record-keeping) piled into an old flatbed truck and made their way from their windowless
shack that hugged the edge of those railroad tracks in Kingsland, Arkansas, to the new Dyess Colony Scheme, 14,000 fertile, swampy acres in the northeast corner of the state, just down the road a piece from the Mississippi River. It was on that freezing, bumpy ride to Dyess that Johnny Cash was introduced to gospel music. The tune was “I Am Bound for the Promised Land,” and it couldn’t have been more appropriate for their journey—and their destination. The lyrics of the old spiritual filled the Cash family with a hope they hadn’t experienced in quite a while:
On Jordan’s stormy banks I stand,
And cast a wishful eye
To Canaan’s fair and happy land,
Where my possessions lie
I am bound for the promised land,
I am bound for the promised land;
Oh who will come and go with me?
I am bound for the promised land
For the dirt-poor Cash clan, there would be no more wandering to make ends meet or to keep food on the table.
O the transporting, rapturous scene,
That rises to my sight!
Sweet fields arrayed in living green,
And rivers of delight!
There generous fruits that never fail,
On trees immortal grow;
There rocks and hills, and brooks and vales,
With milk and honey flow
O’er all those wide extended plains
Shines one eternal day;
There God the Son forever reigns,
And scatters night away
“I was almost four,” Cash recalled, “but I remember the ice hanging off the trees. It was raining and freezing all the way up. We found house No. 266 and moved in. All us kids slept on the floor that night.”Daddy Cash and Johnny’s oldest brother cleared ten acres that first year and planted their first cottonseeds. They also caught water moccasins and wildcats and used the hides for floor coverings and makeshift mattresses for the smaller Cash kids. In those days a decent cotton crop brought two bales to the acre. “Dyess Colony was our salvation,” Cash said. “I don’t know what we would have done otherwise. Probably been following the wheat crop and going to the dogs like the others.”
No chilling winds or poisonous breath
Can reach that healthful shore;
Sickness and sorrow, pain and death,
Are felt and feared no more
When I shall reach that happy place,
I’d be forever blest,
For I shall see my Father’s face,
And in His bosom rest
Filled with delight my raptured soul
Would here no longer stay;
Though Jordan’s waves around me roll,
Fearless I’d launch away
But there were no guarantees on the new Cash homestead, either. Their new start on the Delta didn’t necessarily mean outside forces never worked against them—forces like the Mississippi River. In fact, one of Cash’s many storied tunes— “Five Feet High and Rising”—came from seeing with his own eyes how unstoppable acts of nature could destroy months of backbreaking work in the cotton fields, not to mention their still meager income. “I remember when I was a kid about five years old one mornin’ in 1937—the winter of 1937,” Cash said to a concert audience years later, “the rain had been fallin’ day and night, and all the old folks kept sayin’ yes, if that river keeps risin’ it’s goin’ to break that levee and come right over that cotton land. One mornin’ the Mississippi River broke the levee at Wilson, Arkansas, and I woke up and that black, muddy
Mississippi River water was right up to the front door, and I heard my daddy holler and ask my momma, ‘How high’s the water, momma?’ ‘Two feet high and risin’,’ she answered.”
Even in his last days, with his weak, seventy-one-year-old frame, he was still broad shouldered and gifted with strong hands—and that’s due in large part to all his hard labor in the
cotton fields, a backbreaking chore that began much earlier for Cash than for his siblings. He’d eventually work up to 350 pounds of picked cotton a day. “John was probably the only one of us kids who worked on the farm and didn’t complain,” sister Reba said. Well, maybe he didn’t complain then—and certainly not to anyone’s face. But later in life, he unchained his disdain for his childhood labors: “The hardest thing I ever did in my life? Hell, that’s easy: cotton … I picked it, I chopped it, I hauled it. It was drudgery.”
When he wasn’t scarring his young fingers in the fields and bagging hundreds of pounds of cotton, Cash could sometimes be found in the clothing section of the local store—not that he
or his folks ever purchased much to wear. “When you know you can’t have things, you don’t want for them,” he reasoned. “I always got something to eat when I was hungry, and the rest didn’t bother me. “I never have been all the way down and out,” Cash said. “I’ve been down physically and mentally at times, so I understand what it’s like to feel like an underdog … When I was a little kid I’d hunt rabbits and squirrels simply because we needed them to eat, and they were really good. If my daddy gave me two shells, I was supposed to bring back two rabbits.
I’m still like that. I go rabbit hunting and I won’t take but two shells.”
When there weren’t freshly killed rabbits to eat, “sometimes at supper we had to fill up on turnip greens, and sometimes at breakfast it was just flapjacks and biscuits—but that was plenty.”
Regardless of what was on the table, the Cashes gave thanks to God before every meal. It wasn’t an empty ritual, either— the Cash family was truly grateful, even for just the will and muscle to get through the day and earn enough to keep their hungry mouths fed.11 Their Baptist heritage ran deep in their veins, after all. (Cash’s grandpa and great-grandpa were missionary Baptist preachers, and two of his great-uncles were Baptist preachers as well.) Said Carrie Rivers Cash, “We raised all our children up to be good Christian children. They’re all members of churches. They may have strayed—but not far.”
While the Cashes were relieved to have a roof over their heads and their daddy at home on a consistent basis, the next step was figuring out how they fit into their new community.
“We had no recreation hall in Dyess,” Reba said, “and really about the only thing we had was our school activities and church. We were very active in church.”
Joanne Yates, another of Cash’s sisters, noted that the family split time between the local Baptist church—which had some “great congregational singing”—and then headed down to the local Pentecostal church. “Sometimes we’d get scared to death in church,” Yates remembered. “The preacher preached hellfire and brimstone… We sang some of the same old songs that are still around, like ‘Amazing Grace’ and ‘Unclouded Day.”
The Road Fifteen Church of God met in an aged schoolhouse. And even though she was raised Methodist and wasn’t a member of Road Fifteen, Cash’s momma loved their services and regularly brought young J.R. along. Like his sister’s memories, Cash’s recollections aren’t the
happiest. “The thing I remember most was fear,” Cash recalled. “I didn’t understand it as worship then. I only knew it was some place momma was making me go with her. The preacher terrified
me. He shouted and cried and gasped …But the people were caught up in the fever. The preacher would walk into the congregation and grab someone up out of their seat, shouting, ‘Come to God! Repent!’ And he’d lead them to the altar where they’d fall to their knees … The writhing on the floor, the moaning, the trembling, and the jerks they got into scared me even more. And the preacher standing over a woman lying on the floor sweating and shouting, ‘Hallelujah! Praise God! Praise God!’”
For J.R., there was no joy in witnessing these strange scenes—to him all the crying and carrying on meant these folks were in pain. Yet somehow his momma left those services with a happy countenance and peace he couldn’t fathom. But after a while the Gospel message he heard every week began to sink in. By the time Cash reached ten or eleven—not quite the “age of accountability,” in his mind—he knew there were two definite paths he could travel in life, and he wanted to get his heart right with God. He had observed those who made that fateful choice for the light, and they were very different from “the ones playing checkers over at the service station during the church service.”17 Just after he reached his twelfth birthday, Cash felt a stirring
in his heart one night during a revival meeting. Cash was rapt as the preacher went through his sermon … and then the first notes of the invitational song rang out. It was a tune Cash would eventually record in 1975, the title of which adorns a special collection of his favorite spiritual songs:
Just as I am, without one plea,
But that Thy blood was shed for me,
And that Thou bidst me come to Thee,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come
“It was not that I had been such a bad boy,” Cash remembered. “It was just that the right way and the wrong way had been laid down to me so surely by my parents … The necessity of my making a choice was inevitable. If I did not accept Christ, I was rejecting Him, and I knew who Jesus was and why He’d come … I understood, and I believed. I needed Him as my Savior in order to become an heir of heaven.”19
Just as I am, and waiting not
To rid my soul of one dark blot,
To Thee whose blood can cleanse each spot,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come
“I finally got up the courage to step out of that pew, walk down the aisle, and take the preacher’s hand,” Cash recalled. “There was not any big burst of shouting or fireworks, but a beautiful peace came over me that night. And a relief that I had stepped out and chosen the way that had been pointed out to me all those years.”
Just as I am, though tossed about
With many a conflict, many a doubt,
Fightings and fears within, without,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.
While Cash’s newfound spiritual anchor was taking root in his life, things weren’t always peaceful at home. Sometimes Ray Cash came home drunk—and that meant anything could happen. One morning Johnny heard him yelling and swearing at his momma, not letting her answer him back, until he finally announced that he was going to wallop her.
Then the unbelievable happened. His older brother Jack stopped his dangerously drunk—and
much larger—father. Jack stepped between his momma and daddy and yelled at Ray Cash that he’d have to hit him first. Incredibly, the elder Cash backed off. Then there was the time his daddy killed young J.R.’s beloved dog, Jake Terry, a stray that he spotted heading down the road
into town and brought home. One day J.R. came home from school and called Jake Terry, but he didn’t come. So he and Jack went looking for him—but not before asking their daddy if he’d
seen him. “No,” he said. But J.R. and Jack found the dog at the far end of the cotton
rows across a shallow ditch with a .22 bullet in his skull. Again, Jack confronted Ray Cash: “We found Jake Terry down there across the ditch.” The elder Cash replied, “Yeah, I killed him. I didn’t want to have to tell you boys, but we just didn’t need another dog
around here.” (The Cashes already had a dog named Ray.)
Many years later, Ray Cash was a bit more repentant. “I wouldn’t have killed that dog if I’d have thought about it,” he said. “I hated the killing, but it was done.”22 J.R.—who was five years old at the time—was devastated. “I thought my world had ended that morning, that nothing was safe, that life wasn’t safe,” he recalled. “It was a frightening thing, and it took a long time for me to get over it. It was a cut that went deep and stayed there.”
While Ray Cash wasn’t a complete ogre, it’s safe to say that Cash had a love-hate relationship with his father. And while the elder Cash’s often dismissive attitude regarding J.R.’s needs and dreams (especially musical) was a tough row to hoe, he was able to tough it out and get through his childhood.
There was a lot missing, though. “[My father] never once told me he loved me, and he never
had a loving hand to lay on his children,” Cash noted. “He said once that he didn’t have to tell people he loved them for them to know it, and perhaps that was true. Still, it would have meant an awful lot for me to have heard it, just once, before he died.”
One day in 1936, with money coming into the Cash household on a more regular basis, the clan splurged for a battery radio—electricity would not reach their home for another decade—and the strains of embryonic country music on Friday and Saturday nights from the Grand Ole Opry felt like honey in J.R.’s ears. The gadget added fuel to the fire building in his soul.
At that point Cash began hoping for options beyond life on a cotton farm. And while Cash’s parents and the church fed him a healthy dose of old-fashioned virtues throughout his childhood—industriousness, thrift, honesty, and religious zeal weren’t in short supply—their frequently confining requirements more than likely led Cash down a road that, for a long while, didn’t actively include God. As author Christopher S. Wren pointed out, “they were bound to constrict, breeding within Cash a latent restlessness that would erupt into rebellion years later.”