Cash recalls life in the Delta

Wednesday, May 3, 2006
Tommy Cash has fond memories of when he was a projectionist at the Dyess Colony Theater. (Town Crier photo/Nan Snider)

Dyess welcomed home another favorite son last week, Tommy Cash, of Hendersonville, Tenn., younger brother of the world-famous Johnny Cash.

Tommy Cash is a star in his own right, acclaimed recording artist, song writer, and author. He is well known in the music world for his gold 1969 Epic record about JFK, RFK, and Martin Luther King entitled "Six White Horses."

Cash was born and raised at Dyess, before moving to Memphis at age 16. He formed his first band while still in high school but enlisted in the Army soon after graduation. He was stationed in Germany in 1958, and with his musical background deejayed for the Armed Service Radio there. After returning to the States, Cash played with Hank Williams, Jr. and gained his own recording contract with Musicor, producing other top 10 singles. During the 1970s Cash toured and recorded for Epic, Elektra, 20th Century and Monument records.

He has managed to blend his music career with a successful business career as well. He still has a busy tour schedule that allows him to perform all over the world. He is also a professional realtor with Crye-Leike and manager of TomCat Productions, in Hendersonville, where he and his wife Marcy reside.

His parents, Roy and Carrie Rivers Cash, moved from Kingsland, Ark., in 1935 when President Roosevelt's administration created Dyess Colony, in Mississippi County, and experiment in American Socialism.

With no money down, the Cash family was given 20 acres of fertile bottom land and a five room house to live in. The house is still standing on Mississippi County Road W924, just west of the city of Dyess. The seven siblings included Roy, Louise (Garrett), Jack, J.R. (Johnny), Reba (Hancock), Joann (Yates) and Tommy. Only Joann and Tommy remain.

The name Cash is very recognizable and the talent speaks for itself.

"Our family was very musical," Cash said. "My Daddy had a deep voice. My mother sang and played piano, and my mother played the piano. We took part in musical programs at school and church.

"We had a happy childhood in Dyess," He said. "All of us had agriculture in common, and being a part of Dyess Colony. The circle uptown had everything we needed, a movie house, the Pop Shop, a place to gather and spend time with our friends."

Cash couldn't resist visiting the theatre while in Dyess last week, and recalling time spent there.

"I was a projectionist at the theatre from age 14-16," he said. "I was glad to get the job. I got to see all the latest movies, and visit with my friends, while making money to spend."

Cash recalled the darkest day of his life, at age 10, when his big brother Johnny left him at the theatre, and he had to walk home alone.

"Johnny had taken me to the owl show (midnight) and left with some of his friends in my Dad's 1942 Oldsmobile car. I guess he forgot about me. I waited and waited, then decided I was going to have to get home by myself. We lived two miles west of town on a dirt road. I don't recall it ever being that dark before. I had to feel my way along the road until I got to where I lived.

"Johnny was always spirited and full of his tricks. When I was 6 years old my father told Johnny to teach me how to swim. I was so excited and envisioned him taking me in the water and showing me how to use my arms and feet properly so as to become a good swimmer. He took me to the "Blue Hole," on the Tyronza River near our home, where we all swam. Johnny was anxious to get back to his pals and had protested that he didn't want to mess with me. Daddy had insisted.

"Instead of walking into the water, Johnny threw me off the bridge. It looked like 40 feet down at the time, but was probably eight or ten. He jumped in the water and made sure I didn't drown. I was scared to death, but I learned to swim that day."

Johnny Cash went on to become an accomplished song writer and entertainer, and often wrote about the days growing up in cotton country at Dyess. His family withstood the devastating floods of 1937, were the Mississippi River broke through its levees and flooded the southern area of Mississippi County. Cash memorialized the flood evacuation by writing "Five Feet High and Rising" in 1959.

"When Johnny's first record came out, I was fifteen," Cash said. "I was a basketball player, and one of the stars of the Dyess junior high team. We won the state championship that year. I dreamed of being a basketball coach when I grew up.

"All of us went from being who we were -- I was Tommy Cash, the little basketball star, and Mom and Daddy were just the Cashes of Dyess -- to being Johnny Cash's family. We were known locally one way and by the world we were the family of Johnny Cash. That is when it all started. It took me a while to figure out that I was a brother to a big star. I thought it was the greatest thing that had ever happened in our lives.

"Back then, I had not gone through all the years I've gone through now, answering questions about John. Everywhere I go, even to this day, people say, 'Are you really Johnny Cash's brother?' All I can say is that I loved my brother and we were very close. His fame changed all of us. But we were all extremely proud of him."

Tommy Cash took time out during his visit to Dyess City Hall to look at Johnny's Dyess High School Class of 1950 composite photo and then look at his own classmates from 1958. He inquired as to where his classmates were now to Dyess residents who came by to visit and Mayor Larry Sims.

Cash relived the days of playing basketball in Dyess, under coach Tom Parks.

"I have happy memories being here with my brothers and sisters," Cash said. "Coach Parks taught me more discipline playing ball for him than I got in the Army. He made high school memories important.

"In 1976, I did a whole year with The Johnny Cash Show. I opened and emceed the show during the bicentennial year. It was the Carters and myself and sometimes Carl Perkins, sometimes Gordon Terry, and sometimes other people on the show.

"We were doing a show at the University of Wisconsin once, and John and I were in the men's locker room. I saw him walking up and down the aisles, looking into the lockers. The lockers had little square holes where you could look in the top of them and see what was in the locker. I asked him what he was doing? He said, 'Aw, nothing.' Later I saw him roll up a bill, push it through the hole in the locker.

"I asked him why he was doing that. He said he was looking for the guy with the oldest, raggediest tennis shoes and gym clothes, and had dropped a $100 bill into his tennis shoes. I always imagined how thrilled a young struggling kid must have felt when finding that money."

"Johnny bought Mom and Dad a house in Memphis when I was 16 (1956), and we moved there. I didn't want to leave Dyess, but had to. I learned to love Memphis also, and graduated from Memphis Treadwell High School. I played basketball there and was offered a scholarship to play college ball. I elected instead to join the Army.

"After I got out of the Army, I returned to Memphis. I married Barbara and we had two children. Mark lives in Nashville now, and Paula lives in Atlanta, Ga.

"In 1960 I traveled on the road constantly. I did 65-70 shows a year. From 1965-1983 I had 20 records, according to the Billboard Music Guide. I went on to operate the Cash Music business, in Nashville, and later got into real estate.

"Johnny and I just lived 1 1/2 miles apart in Hendersonville. He lived by the river so he could fish and I lived by the golf course so I could play golf. We were very close, and I have sure missed him since he died in 2003.

"I had to learn to just be myself and do my own thing. I am proud of my heritage, but have to look to the future."

Tommy Cash now does a special collection of songs titled "A Tribute to my Brother, Johnny Cash" and has recorded an album by that name.

"I plan to perform this tribute on July 7 when I come to Dyess for the big Dyess-Johnny Cash Memorial fundraiser," Cash said. "I am really looking forward to that. I think Johnny would be proud to have the monument and to know that people cared so much. I want to do anything that I can do to help."

For more information about the upcoming Dyess celebration July 7-9, visit their website:

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