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Johnny Cash Museum, Built On Friendship, Marks A Decade

Johnny Cash Museum
Instruments from Johnny Cash's early career are among the most exceptional artifacts at the downtown museum, which turns ten this year.

I’ve driven past the billboard advertising Nashville’s Johnny Cash Museum on the downtown freeway possibly a thousand times in the past decade. But like a New Yorker who forgets to go to the Statue of Liberty, I’d never taken advantage of our city’s shrine to the Man in Black. It’s celebrating ten years in business this year, and it’s become an integral part of the Lower Broadway ecosystem with a reputation as a serious museum. So enough already. I had to check it out.

The JCM is a half block off Broadway at 119 3rd Ave. South, just where the Shelby Pedestrian Bridge drops you off at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center on the West side of the Cumberland River. Surrounded by branded star bars for Kid Rock and Florida Georgia Line, the Cash mini-complex (museum, gift shop, restaurant, venue) offers a more, ahem, soulful vibe for the country music pilgrim or the local showing out-of-town visitors a good and edifying time. There’s a bonus museum upstairs that’ll take you even farther into the story of classic country, so stay tuned for that.

Besides indulging my long standing fascination with Cash himself, I wanted to understand how a privately owned museum so stocked with personal items could come to be in the first place. And the answer is a multi-decade friendship between Cash and a historical documents and memorabilia dealer named Bill Miller. “It's a story of one friend honoring another one. That's what it comes down to,” said Angela Daeger, Sr. VP with Icon Entertainment Group, the company Miller set up overseeing a growing group of Nashville properties, including Nudie’s Honky Tonk and Skull’s Rainbow Room.

Daeger told me that Miller was just 13 when he met Cash backstage fifty years ago, but in time they made a connection over collecting American artifacts. Miller helped Cash find certain items and became caretaker to a growing collection of Cash possessions that eventually filled warehouses. Miller also set up Cash’s official website in the 1990s and established a Cash web radio station in 2010. Eventually, the growing tourist base downtown and fan inquiries made a museum a possible and then pressing idea. “The fact that Bill Miller had that very personal relationship with Johnny Cash, that he knew so much about him in and out, (that) he had all the artifacts, I think that really helped and elevated it to have the staying power that it did,” Daeger says.

The chronological journey of Cash’s life is packed with telling details, including his junior high yearbook, his FFA youth membership card and a printed program from a Louvin Brothers/Smilin’ Eddie Hill show - reportedly the first live concert Cash attended. A dress uniform, pencil-written notes from training during his Air Force years (1950-54), and a letter seeking post discharge employment are quotidian reminders that before he walked into Sun Records in Memphis, he was just a working guy who loved gospel and folk music.

The Sun years are most vividly illustrated with Cash’s Martin guitar, an antique amplifier owned by Luther Perkins (played on “Hey Porter” and “I Walk The Line”), and a bass slapped in rockabilly time by Marshall Grant of the Tennessee Two, Cash’s first band. That display will thrill any musician, while the canceled check to John R. Cash from Sun for more than fifteen thousand dollars in 1957 will perhaps excite music business folks even more.

I was excited by the denim jumpsuit Cash wore for rehearsals during his visit to San Quentin Prison in 1969 when he taped a performance for television and a monumental live album. That led on to numerous galleries and halls, every one packed with things to think about (not to mention packed with visitors on a weekday around noon). A bicentennial suit designed by Nudie Cohn is an exercise in restraint with a few well placed red, white and blue stars on an all black outfit. An exhibit about the 2005 film production of Walk The Line is a good reminder how impactful that biopic was, coming soon after his passing. Daeger says the film’s influence on younger visitors to the museum has been palpable.

Music production nerds will nerd out on a set of recording consoles from Cash’s home studio, including desks that recorded his vital late career comeback albums made with producer Rick Rubin. A related interactive station lets us listen to and mix various tracks from some later Cash recording sessions. “What’s really cool is you can turn everything else down and just listen to his vocals,” Daeger pointed out. “You can hear every breath that he’s taking in between the lines. It’ll give you chills. It’s my favorite thing in the museum.”

C. Havighurst

I was transported by the attention to Cash’s former home in Hendersonville, TN, the mighty timber, stone and glass house overlooking Old Hickory Lake where the singer moved in 1968. As most folks know, the 14,000 square foot structure was purchased in 2006 by Bee Gees member Barry Gibb, and during renovations, something caught fire and the whole place burned to the ground as if in some biblical parable. Bill Miller’s team was allowed to salvage stones for a display in the Cash museum, a wall that sets off some of the Cash’s hearty gothic furniture and home decor. Also poignant and grand is the large and stark House of Cash sign that welcomed visitors to his public-facing personal museum and working complex between the 1970s and 90s.

Those icons set up the museum’s finale which focuses on the mesmerizing and career-capping music video for Cash’s cover of Trent Reznor’s song “Hurt,” which was released to universal awe in 2003, just prior to Cash’s passing in September of that year. Standing before the very chair that Cash occupies in the video, visitors can watch it play in full on a loop. Its flashback film conveys the life story the museum visitor has just seen play out, set to an astonishingly powerful vocal performance by a man clearly nearing his final reckoning. Cash’s death, is not mentioned in the museum. It’s a celebration, not a eulogy.

When Ken Burns made his epic Country Music film a few years ago, Johnny Cash was positioned as a kind of structural skeleton for the entire history of the genre in the 20th century, because of his own eclectic music, his longevity, his activism, and his marriage to June Carter, joining him with the First Family of country. Robert Hilburn’s definitive biography of the artist runs 630 pages yet feels short. There’s no containing or defining Cash’s story, but the museum on 3rd Ave. is the closest you can get in the United States to warming yourself with Cash’s fire. It’s not a trivial expense at $26, but this is no tourist trap. There’s a reverence and thoroughness about the place that dignifies and explains a grand and complex life.

While you’re there, don’t fail to notice the sister museum upstairs on the second floor devoted to the life and music of Patsy Cline. It’s a separate ticket, but worth it. Part of a diner where Cline worked in Winchester, VA is preserved and reconstructed. Her Madison, TN home rec room and lounge with record playing console and a stack of country LPs is almost entirely authentic and pretty wild to inhabit. A display of sketches for tailor Nudie Cohn for dresses she’d designed for herself - along with posthumous iterations of those dresses - shows a lively mind and a woman profoundly in charge of her own image and career, which was so cruelly cut short by a 1963 plane crash.

Visit the museum online to find out more.

C. Havighurst
The famous "Hurt" video of 2003 acts as a benediction at the Johnny Cash museum.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org