I always thought my wife Joyce was the world’s number 1 Johnny Cash fan. But after being part of the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd visiting Nashville, Tenn.’s new Johnny Cash Museum on a recent Friday, I’m convinced there are plenty of other folks who are just as wild about the Man in Black.
The museum, located just off Music City’s storied Broadway in the heart of downtown, has been open since April. For fans like Joyce, the place is a treasure trove of artifacts and interactive displays that tell the story of the singer, songwriter, actor and author from birth (his birth certificate is there) to death (Cash’s last video, of the song “Hurt,” plays near the museum’s exit door).
Much of the assortment of pictures, posters, handwritten song lyrics, musical instruments, awards, clothing, furniture and personal documents belongs to a fellow named Bill Miller, who collected Cash memorabilia for years and eventually became a good friend of the legendary musician.
“What we try to do is show people things they’d probably never see at any other museum,” Miller told CMT when the attraction opened. “It’s really been a major journey collecting all this stuff and putting it all together.”
Cash’s family has cooperated in setting up the museum. In fact, family members occasionally greet visitors there.
One display I found especially interesting featured an entire rock wall from the elegant house on a lake in nearby Hendersonville, Tenn., where Cash and his wife, June Carter Cash, lived for many years. Nearly three years after Cash’s death in 2003 at age 71, the striking home burned down as it was being remodeled by the new owner, Bee Gees singer Barry Gibb. The wall, left standing after the fire, was excavated and rebuilt stone-by-stone inside the museum. Some of the Cashes’ furniture, artwork and dinnerware are displayed near the wall.
There’s also a display on the numerous concerts Cash performed for prison inmates. Two of those concerts — at Folsom and San Quentin prisons in California — were turned into popular record albums. In a video of one of the concerts accompanying the display, some of the inmates are so enthralled by Cash and his troupe that they are crying.
One part of the museum is a mini-theater continually playing clips from some of the movies and TV shows in which Cash appeared, including his critically acclaimed ABC-TV variety show that ran from 1969-71. Some of Cash’s acting turns are gripping, such as when he played a desperate criminal in the 1961 black-and-white film “Five Minutes to Live” (along with a very young Ron Howard) and a grown man learning to read in the TV movie “The Pride of Jesse Hallam.”
There are listening stations where visitors can put on earphones and view videos of Cash performances by decades, beginning in the 1950s.
Nearby is an exhibit on the beginning of Cash’s career, when his group was billed as Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two (guitarist Luther Perkins and bass player Marshall Grant). Together, the three men created the famous boom-chicka-boom sound of Cash’s music.
The display features instruments belonging to each of the men, including a guitar owned by Grant but used by Cash in those early years. An accompanying video shows Grant speaking at a memorial tribute to Cash at Nashville’s iconic Ryman Auditorium. In the video, Grant makes reference to the guitar, which stands beside him on the Ryman stage. To see the instrument in the memorial video and the same instrument directly in front of me in the museum brought a tear to my eye.
I knew that Cash was an author. His autobiographies and the book “The Man in White,” a novel based on the life of St. Paul, were best-sellers. But I didn’t realize that Johnny was an artist. A museum exhibit showing some of his artwork says Cash was constantly sketching — in sketchbooks and on napkins, paper sacks or whatever was available. He also did leather work, some of which is on display.
I had fun at the Cash museum, and of course Joyce was floating on air as we exited into the adjoining gift shop which, along with every kind of Johnny Cash merchandise imaginable, sells jewelry made by Cash’s daughter Tara and sister Joanne.