The sight of a cowboy hat is not unusual in these parts, but the man under the brim ain't from around here. He is from Florence, Italy, and he has come with three friends on a musical pilgrimage to a struggling little town an hour's drive north of Memphis.
The Dyess colony was formed in 1934 as an agricultural experiment in president Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal programme, which sought to help the country rebound from the Great Depression. About 500 families who had been hit hard were selected to farm the land and given subsidies: typically, 20 or 40 acres, a small home, some money and a mule.
It was America helping Americans. These days Dyess could use a little more outside assistance, which is where folks such as Gianluca Pro come in. The Italians, who are touring the region, are here out of curiosity because Ray and Carrie Cash moved their family to Dyess in 1935 and the fourth of their seven children became a music great whose influence and appeal endure worldwide more than a decade after his death.
Johnny Cash grew up in Dyess and its harsh environment was a profound influence on his life and work. His brother was killed in a sawmill accident in 1944. Cash moved out in the 1950s and eventually the family home fell into disrepair, much like the town around it. That is, until backers including Arkansas State University stepped in, spending $470,000 to buy and restore the house over three years as the first part of a long-term $4.2m project to use Cash's past to give Dyess a future. Events such as Friday's fourth annual Johnny Cash Music Festival in nearby Jonesboro have helped raise funds.
The Johnny Cash Boyhood Home had its grand opening on Saturday and the handsome New Deal-era administration building in the town centre has been renovated and turned into a museum. But even so, for now, Dyess – pronounced Dice – is moribund, its southern charm wearing thin. A couple of hundred people gathered in front of the administration building for the ceremony's speeches; some dressed all in black, a few sporting baseball caps with the slogan "I walk the line in Dyess, Arkansas". Residents set up stalls selling food, clothes and quilts and cheered when officials said the project could bring 100 jobs and a $10m economic impact to the region. And maybe even a road sign on Interstate 55.
Roseanne Cash, Johnny's eldest daughter, herself a successful singer-songwriter, told the crowd her father would have been deeply moved. "This would have meant more to him than any Grammy, any gold record," she said.
The population is only about 400 and facilities are scarce. There is a decrepit general store and a car wash, which at least seems like a reasonable business proposition given the amount of dust whipped up by the gravel roads that provide access to the place, far from major highways and hidden amid farmland, where the Cash family picked cotton. "There's no industry, there's no businesses. One little store, that's it," said the mayor, Larry Sims. He lamented the sticky clay "gumbo" soil, which made construction expensive and difficult. Sims said some residents doubted whether the house and museum would improve the town's prospects. But he is hoping for a Cash boost of 20,000 annual visitors. It is a far cry from the 600,000 fans who head to Memphis each year to marvel at the kitsch excesses of Elvis Presley's Graceland mansion. It is perhaps half the number who pass annually through the doors of the museum in Indianola, Mississippi devoted to the great bluesman, BB King.
Still, 20,000 people at $10 admission a head would bring in a sum equivalent to twice the town's annual budget and provide an incentive for someone to build a new shop, or a restaurant, maybe even a hotel. "We don't have anything for them to actually spend their money on other than the museum," Sims said. Debbie Williams Plyler, a business owner who lives in Little Rock and spends weekends in Dyess, said: "It's a poor little Arkansas town and we're just hoping the tourists will bring some money and help the town get back on its feet." Her father, Gene Williams, was a prominent local country music figure who knew Cash well.
On Friday, with his headgear shielding him from the fierce sun, Pro gazed at the administration building and the adjacent facade of a disused movie theatre, which had a poster of the 1935 Gene Autry film Tumbling Tumbleweeds on the wall. Then he and his friends got in their minivan and made the five-minute drive to the humble, isolated, single-storey dwelling where the Man in Black – then known as JR – lived from the age of three until he graduated from high school and enlisted in the US air force. He went on to record famous numbers such as I Walk the Line, Folsom Prison Blues and Ring of Fire, take copious amounts of drugs in the 1960s and continue to make music until shortly before his death in Nashville in 2003, aged 71. The 2005 biopic Walk the Linestarred Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, who won the best actress Oscar for her portrayal of the singer's second wife, June Carter Cash. "He has such an international following, which is what I think is incredible," said Ruth Hawkins, head of Arkansas State University's heritage sites programme. "We have a message box on our fence out there at the house and we check it daily when we're up there and the messages are from Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Wales, Ireland, Japan, Germany. Sometimes from the US, but most of the time they're from Europe, which is phenomenal."
Relatives and donors have helped furnish the house and museum with authentic exhibits, including the original family piano, photographs, original linoleum and period furnishings. Even Cash's boy scout membership card and high school yearbook are on display. "I was in charge of my dad's air force trunk and had his name stamped inside of it, JR Cash, all through the trunk. I had it in my house, but they're doing this museum – it has a home," said one of his daughters, Cindy Cash. "It's so nice that somebody wanted to do it for Dad … that was such an honour to us, all of us were really touched by it."
She recalled being taken aback by the decline of Dyess. "The first time I went there I went with Dad and he took me to show me. We got off his bus and the buildings were still being occupied. And then when I came back the next time … nothing. It looked like a tornado had hit it and it was gone.
"Literally the town looked abandoned, like a ghost town. So to see this rejuvenation of Dyess, it's like, oh my goodness, it's still going to be here on the map in the future."
So why do a 35-year-old Italian and his friends – and countless others from a different era and another continent – remain captivated by a country music star from rural Arkansas? "He really resonates with the common man, his sense of values, and they're values that were shaped there in Dyess, his love of family, his love of community, his concern for the downtrodden," said Hawkins. "I think those come across in his music and I think he comes across as being a genuine, very caring person, even down to admitting all of his foibles. And I think people can identify with that." Cindy Cash also has a theory. "It's his presence, his mysteriousness, his bad boy image and his good boy image and how they mix, how they balance," she said, adding that her father was delighted that his appeal transcended generations. "To see all the young people, that made him so proud. That was his proudest day, when VH1 nominated him for a video award [in 2003]. He was like, 'See, I'm still cool.'"
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