The Arkansas Delta, located in the state's northeastern region, is wisely marketed by the state's tourism office as the land of Soil and Soul. Part of the Mississippi River flood plain, it has become a fertile basin through repeated river flooding depositing rich minerals and new soil. Raising cotton, the region's major economy until the 1950's, relied on slave labor and then, in large part, upon tenant farmers. The caustic roots of this interdependence of wealthy landowners and struggling laborers are what some credit as the birth of a great wealth of music.
Arkansas Delta musicians include Levon Helm, Pinetop Perkins, Sonny Boy Williams, Charlie Rich, Junior Parker and the most famous – Johnny Cash. A trip to the Delta is a step into the past – great expanses of cotton fields line the two-lane roads. Hardly a soul can be seen for miles and the Blues-related inspirations still abound. But, there is personal 'grit' here too – a fierce pride shared by the residents who don't seem to get rattled by much and who find enjoyment in a lot. Johnny Cash came from Dyess, a town created in 1934 by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. Arkansas was stricken with poverty and the government allowed families, chosen for work ethic, “good moral background,” and strong physical ability, to relocate to the Dyess Colony. It was here where the Cash family moved when 'JR' was a young boy.Today their home is a treasure.
“Cash's boyhood home,” said Dr. Ruth Hawkins, the Arkansas State University administrator of the project, “will be renovated along with smaller farm buildings.”
Plans are to create a walking trail connecting the Cash boyhood home along with other improvements. The university has raised $1.9 million toward its goal of $3.2 million for the Johnny Cash Boyhood Hometown Project. Most of this money has come from the Johnny Cash Music Festival, with a third planned soon at the Arkansas State University’s Convocation Center in Jonesboro. Cash's brother, Tommy Cash, and sister Joanne Cash Yates, will emcee the event. Entertainers set to perform include Vince Gill, Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers and Jimmy Fortune of the Statler Brothers. Tickets on sale at tickets.astate.edu. Visitors traveling to the festival can also sample the 'soil and soul' of the Old South, where Cash's humble childhood provided the inspiration for more than 1,000 songs. Other notable things to do in the area, all accessible from Jonesboro, include numerous festivals, restaurants, historical properties, music, museums and interesting towns.
The King Biscuit Blues Festival If you can't make it to the Cash Festival, consider attending this music-fueled festival held in Helena. It is a four-day event with six stages around downtown and draws more than 100,000 attendees. Food and souvenir booths line the main street while music can be heard all over town. Dates this year are October 10-12. (bluesandheritagefest.com).
The Blues grew out of the fields – the hollers and chants of laborers and the festival name comes from King Biscuit Time, the longest running daily blues radio show, originally sponsored by King Biscuit Flour, in the country. Many musicians credit listening to the daily program as inspiration for their own careers. It airs Monday-Friday at 12:15 p.m., timed in its inception to broadcast when field laborers would break for lunch.
Delta Cultural Center
The center is actually two different locations in town, - the depotand the visitors center– and dedicated to preserving the history of the surrounding 27 counties. From music, to cultural incidents to food to history, the center offers changing exhibits, live music, a nice gift shop and a cool place to sit for a spell.
Located in Piggott, the museum is the former family home of Ernest Hemingway's second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer. Her parents converted a barn into a studio where Hemingway wrote portions of "A Farewell To Arms."
Southern Tenant Farmers Museum
This museum, located in Tyronza. tells the history of the sharecropping system used for so long in the Delta. Cultural conflicts arose from the tensions as the region struggled to increase opportunity for all Arkansas residents. Above average exhibits, staff and gift shop.
Parkin Archeological State Park
Site of an American Indian village 1000-plus years old. Active archaeological research ongoing. Many scholars believe this site was visited by explorer Hernando de Soto in 1541.
Village Creek State Park
Pleasant state park with horseback riding, boat and kayak rentals, hiking, bike rentals, camping, and an impressive 27-hole golf course, the Ridges at Village Creek. Park visitors can see a portion of the Trail of Tears, named for the forced removal in 1830 of Indians to Oklahoma.
White River National Wildlife Refuge
Located in the flood plain of the White River, the refuge was created in 1935 to protect migratory birds. View an introductory film about the refuge and its purpose at the visitors center. You may also hunt, fish, hike, camp or just observe the scenery. Hike to see the biggest tree in the state – a magnificent bald cypress. This is also where the rare, some say extinct, ivory-billed woodpecker has been sighted.
Jones’ Bar-B-Q in Marianna
If you do nothing else, go to this restaurant. Tiny, with just two tables, and unassuming, Jones' Bar-B-Que is home to the best barbecue sandwiches ($3) I've ever eaten. Order through the small window – and here is the total menu: With or Without. You can have your sandwich, served only on Wonder Bread, with coleslaw or not. You may also have a bag of potato chips and a Mountain Dew or Dr Pepper. You will love it and it is highly recommended to order one of each. Jones is a James Beard winner and it is no surprise. He cooks with closely guarded recipes passed down by his grandfather, who wielded a wheelbarrow full of sandwiches through downtown. Wander around back to watch the food being prepared over hot coals in the pits. There is no website or email but the telephone number is 870-295-3807.
Ray’s Dairy Maid
You too, just as the Food Network's Alton Brown did, should come all the way to Barton, Arkansas, for the pie. Brown raved to all who would listen about their pecan-coconut pie made with buttermilk. You will rave about it too. They also serve small handmade fruit pies and chocolate gravy. Ask! No website; no email. Call them at 870-572-3060.
Dinner at Skinny J’s in Jonesboro Award winning steaks, live music, liberal libations and a down home atmosphere makes this a crowd favorite. Visit skinnyjs.com more.
The Feed Lot in Caraway
If you have never had home grown collard greens, homemade cornbread or sliced tomatoes, or if you have never tasted Southern cooking like pot roast, lima beans or corn fritters, then go here. Checkered tablecloths dotted with tall glasses of sweet tea welcome visitors who pull up to the gravel parking lot. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are served everyday from 4 a.m. – 8 p.m. except Sundays. Try to save room for the carrot cake. No website; no email. Callers can reach them at 870-275-0802.
Bourbon Street Steakhouse at Southland Park
Enjoy some great steaks upstairs at the Southland Park casino. You will find a surprising selection of New Orleans-inspired flavors. Southland has poker, table games and machines, along with greyhounds.