“Now I understand that there are one or two people in the world who don’t listen to country music, but even you’ll have heard of the people we’re gonna visit with.” At the Ryman Auditorium, Wanda, a tiny elderly lady with a beaming smile and wry sense of humour, is launching into her backstage tour. “The first people we’re gonna visit with are Johnny and June Cash.”
To visit Nashville is to be surrounded by both types of music (for those who haven’t heard the joke that would be country and western) but it also to be reminded constantly of the legacy of Johnny Cash. The Ryman, Wanda tells us, was the first place Johnny ever laid eyes on June. He was performing at the Grand Ole Opry; she was sitting in the balcony on a school trip.
It was in Nashville, too, that he shared a house with Waylon Jennings after divorcing Vivian in the mid-60s. Although he lived for many years in Hendersonville, northeast of the Tennessee capital, he played shows in Nashville throughout his life and he inspired practically every musician who’s schlepped their guitar to the home of country music ever since.
Until the middle of last year, however, there was no separate and permanent collection of Cash memorabilia. That was until Bill Miller, Cash’s niece Kelly Hancock and a small band of tireless friends and fans decided to take the DIY approach.
“Bill Miller has been collecting memorabilia for 40-plus years,” says Sydney Robinson, the museum’s director of marketing. “He was in the fan club and established a lifelong friendship with Johnny.”
There could have been no other way to welcome fans to the museum than with the words, “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.” The singer’s voice rings out as it does on the opening of his groundbreaking 1968 At Folsom Prison album. Then the visitor is launched into a multimedia room, where they can watch clips from each decade of his performing career on a series of iPads. You could – and some people do – spend hours pouring over the extensive footage. There are also the instruments he and the Tennessee Two – Luther Perkins and Marshall Grant – played during their very first recording session. “These were given to us by Marshall’s widow, Etta,” says Kelly, who, for the last 14 years of the singer’s life, was Cash’s personal assistant. “She’d kept them all these years, along with those handwritten cards.”
The extent of the items on display is extraordinary. There are instruments, stage costumes that show Cash was a big man in every respect (by comparison, June’s costumes look as though they could have been worn by a child), awards, programs, tickets and posters, but far more personal items too.
Both John’s mother, Carrie, and his first wife, Vivian, had boxes of papers and trinkets. There are bunches of cotton from Dyess, Arkansas, where Cash grew up, school report cards – “not very good at American history; straight As for typing,” Kelly points out – the Bible he took with him when he served in Germany. “When Vivian passed away in 2005 her girls went over to her house and found a lot of these things in her attic. She’d saved Johnny’s Air Force uniform as well as many other things. She kept everything.”
Fans, she explains, tend to congregate in the theatre where an 18-minute film offers a potted history of the singer’s time spent on the screen: hosting The Johnny Cash Show, appearing in movies such as Five Minutes To Live and The Last Days of Frank and Jesse James, taking parts in television series like Dr Quinn, Medicine Woman and voicing Homer’s spirit guide in an episode of The Simpsons.
For Kelly, however, her favourite piece in the museum is far more personal. “It’s a letter Johnny wrote to June in 1973 when he flew from Jamaica to LA,” she explains. “My mom and my brother and I had flown to Jamaica to have Christmas there and he wrote this on the plane to LA – he had a very bad flight and didn’t think he was going to make it. It says, ‘Tell Reba, Timmy and Kelly that I love them all and I wish I could be there for Christmas’ and he writes about the Christmas spirit. It’s beautiful. The letter tells June what to do with the home they had in Cinnamon Hill, Jamaica, and some other things: sell this, don’t sell that, do this. It was kinda instructional, but it also said he loved us all, so it’s kinda precious.”
Near it is a diary opened to a page where he’s marked a trip to Australia. I mention that, since we use smartphones and computers to organise our lives these day, in future years there’ll be none of these kinds of documents to fill museum shelves. “Every single day, until the week before he passed away, Johnny wrote in his planner,” Kelly tells me. “And he believed in letters. Emails? Not so much. He was old school.”
For fans there are plenty of emotional tipping points: a recitation of ‘Ragged Ol’ Flag’, photographs he took and sketches he drew, and the handwritten poem he read at June’s funeral. Then there’s the final exhibit: the console used during the recording of the American series, a sign rescued from the House of Cash and the video for ‘Hurt’, filmed three months before June’s death and seven months before his own. Some consider it one of his greatest recordings. There is, however, no mention of his passing. “That’s one thing Bill said about the very end of this tour: you will not find death,” says Sydney. “When you go to Graceland, at the very end of the tour, you get to the place where Elvis is buried and you leave on that note. But here you walk outside and there’s a huge mural just down the street done by some local guys as a tribute. Then you go on to Broadway and he is everywhere. All the bands know ‘Walk the Line’ and ‘Ring of Fire’. You leave here and turn on to Broadway and Johnny is everywhere. He’s still alive.”
This story was originally published in get lost magazine.