By Colin Woodward (note, this story was read on the show Tales from the South last month)
March 2014. I’m in Turrell, Arkansas, pumping gas and wearing women’s boots. It’s cold, and the cars are making slashing sounds as they drive through the mushy pavement of a Citgo station. But, I’ve never been happier to be at a Flash Market.
I left Little Rock the day before as it recovered from a late winter storm. Farther north, things were much worse.
I was doing research on Johnny Cash for an exhibit. My goal was to reach Dyess, a place I had never been before. It’s Graceland for Cash fanatics. The house had been restored by Arkansas State University, but was not yet open. I was going to get a sneak peak.
My first stop was Newport. Cash played there in the mid-50s, when he had no drummer and was willing to sing at any club, church, or high school gym that would have him. Unglamorous, maybe, but sometimes he shared the bill with Elvis.
I drove north to Newport along the “Rock and Roll Highway,” passing “rocking” towns such as Possum Grape, Nuckles, and Horseshoe. The snow storm had been over for a few days, but many of the roads hadn’t seen a plow. At some ramps, I was the plow—pushing my Toyota Corolla through piles of snow, making a crude path.
At the Newport Rock and Roll Museum, I didn’t see much Cash. But I saw large images of Elvis and many pictures of Sonny Burgess, an Arkansas native and rockabilly legend, who knew Cash in the early days. I told Henry, the curator, I was working on a Johnny Cash exhibit. We got to talking about Sonny Burgess, when Henry asked if I wanted to talk to Sonny, who lived nearby.
I wasn’t prepared for interviewing one of the last survivors of the Sun Records scene, but Henry dialed Sonny’s number, and I talked with him. Sonny still plays with his band, the Legendary Pacers. He was very nice to me on the phone. I don’t think Sonny and Johnny Cash spent all that much time together, but it was fun to hear Sonny talk about Cash, Elvis, and Roy Orbison.
My next stop was Dyess. As I drove through the flat, white landscape of northeastern Arkansas, I thought about what it must have been like for Cash to play one night stands in the early days. Nashville musician Bobby Bare, Jr., once said playing in a band is more about being a truck driver than a musician. I began to understand.
More snow, more slush. Not many trees. Work trucks everywhere, fixing power lines.
At Dyess, I took a right turn at the Johnny Cash sign, which brought me to the center of town, where the melted snow had made a lake of water, two inches deep. The old movie theatre—in the process of being restored—was held up by 2 x 4s. It looked like a bomb had hit it.
At City Hall, I saw a high school picture of Johnny Cash from 1950. Cash is wearing a coat and tie, his hair slicked back. He’s decades from becoming The Man in Black. But you can see the darkness in his eyes, the seriousness and determination.
To get to the Cash house, I had to head back the way I came, crossing two bridges. I took a left on 294: not a highway, but a gravel road, covered in snow. I hesitated for a minute, knowing that a plow had not yet touched 294. I wasn’t sure how far the Cash house was from the main road. And I didn’t know if I wanted to trudge a mile through snow in my women’s boots.
I had a choice: walk or keep on driving. So, I took the turn.
The mud and snow got deeper as I drove. With Outlaw Country playing on my radio, I slammed the car into low gear, hoping for traction, crawling toward the house.
“I’ve Been Everywhere”
With mud splattering against the windshield, the car slid its way to the Cash house. As I pulled up, a Johnny Cash song came on the air. I swear. The song? “I’ve Been Everywhere.” I swear. That song coming on was a cosmic occurrence: this was meant to happen. My trip had gone from the historical to the mystical.
Johnny was looking out for me.
The landscape around the house was flat, white, and cold. Silent. A single tree was in the front yard. I took a lot of pictures, getting the house from every angle. The restoration was spectacular. The place—with its white paint and green trim—is a time machine. It looks like it is 1935 and has just been finished.
When I was done snapping pictures, I saw cars zipping along a main road not far ahead. I was relieved. I would not have to retrace my steps along the gravel road.
As I headed out of town, I drove back past the McCrory country store. Out front, there were signs with Johnny Cash’s likeness advertising “souvenirs.”
The front door of the store was sealed shut by an inch of ice. I knocked. No one answered.
A house was in the back, a small, run-down place, about the size of a trailer. I went to the door and knocked. A voice inside told me to come in.
An old man sat in a chair, watching television. It was Mr. McCrory. I told him that I had driven from Little Rock. We talked about Johnny Cash. About the store. He said he was 90 years old and had been born in Italy. He moved to Dyess later and served in World War II in Italy in the medical corps. Mr. McCrory remembered the fish markets in Naples and St. Peter’s cathedral.
I asked him if he wanted to be a doctor after the war. He said he didn’t have enough education, that he had only finished seventh grade.
Mr. McCrory talked about “the boy” opening the store for me. It turned out “the boy” was his son, who must have been about 70 years old. “The boy” let me in.
Inside, the store was—shall we say—rustic. Cramped, cold, and dark. It was a combination of country store (complete with catsup bottles and canned goods), hardware (with tools everywhere), hunter’s shack (there was a tiny stove at the back), and Johnny Cash gift shop.
“The boy,” Gary McCrory, was Arkansas friendly. And he had the look of a true Arkansan: camo hat and jacket, work boats. Rugged. But he said he wasn’t going anywhere in the snow with his truck.
I talked about the Cash exhibit I was working on as water dripped from the roof. Gary said he used to play drums in a band. I told him about my interview with Sonny Burgess earlier in the day.
The pictures of Johnny Cash in the store were interesting, but they looked like they had been there for twenty years. I bought a photo of Cash with June and the music promoter Gene Williams, who’d gone to school with Cash.
As I left town, the sun was going down. The sky seemed on fire, and there was nothing between me and the March sunset: an orange ball meeting an expanse of icy blue and white.
The next day was sunny and a little warmer. I drove from the Jonesboro to Osceola to do more research. I had a quarter-tank of fuel. As I headed toward Joiner, about 26 miles from Osceola, the gas light came on.
I clicked on the GPS for the nearest gas station. I hurled off the highway, bounding over pock-marked roads made worse by the recent storm.
The only vehicle I saw were service trucks. I drove hard toward wherever this gas station was supposed to be. As I approached my destination, I realized the station wasn’t there. The GPS had screwed me.
I punched another location into the GPS—a Citgo station, and not a close one. It would take me another ten minutes or so to get there. I felt like I didn’t have enough gas.
I panicked at the idea of being stranded on the road to Osceola. I rehearsed my pitch to the closest farmhouse wife. “Um, excuse me? Could you spare some gas to a Damn Yankee too lazy to gas up in Jonesboro?” I thought of other options. Surely, a service truck would give me a ride to a gas station, right?
I sped over the empty, bombed out roads. Eventually, I saw tractor trailers in the distance. Where there are tractor trailers, there are good roads. Where there are good roads, there is gas.
I pulled into the Flash Market, where I stood in my woman’s boots in the melted snow, pumping gas. They were wife’s winter boots. Brown things, not made for Turrell, Arkansas. Before we had left Massachusetts for Arkansas, I got rid of my New England boots. Surely I wouldn’t need them in Arkansas.
I was wrong. But those boots got me through the mud of Mississippi County. And Johnny Cash had been looking out for me.
Colin Woodward is an archivist and historian. He published his first book, Marching Masters, Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War through UVA Press. He is working on a book on Johnny Cash.