I took some of the international students to Nashville for the day and when I asked them what was at the top of their list of what they wanted to see, I got an all around call for visiting the Johnny Cash Museum. The music and legendary icon is one that has crossed time and place to remain one of the most influential musicians of the time. Visiting this museum has long been on my own list of places to see, so I happily agreed to their request.
The Johnny Cash museum is in the heart of downtown Nashville and the building is home to not only the Johnny Cash Museum but also the Patsy Cline Museum. It is $27 to visit the Johnny Cash Museum and an additional $25 to go upstairs to the Patsy Cline Museum. Sorry Ms. Cline, but I’ll have to visit your museum on another visit because today the attention was all for The Man in Black.
JR Cash was born in Arkansas to a poor family of cotton farmers. He was the middle child of the 7 children. The family would work in the fields together and sing as they worked. His mother and a family friend taught him how to play guitar and by the time he was 12 he was writing his own songs and performing on the local radio station.
As a young adult he enlisted in the Air Force where he was told he could not go by his given initials so he listed himself as John R. Cash. He spent three years serving in Germany as a Morse Code operator before returning home to marry his first wife Vivian. That sense of patriotism continued through his life and decades later he wrote ‘The Ragged Old Flag‘ . The video of him reading this poem is on repeat as part of the museum.
After moving to Memphis, he was working as an appliance salesman while he studied to become a radio announcer. At night he played his guitar with the two man band named the ‘Tennessee Two’. He applied to Sun Records a few times about a recording contract to play some gospel music. But the producer, Sam Phillips, was no longer accepting gospel music. But as Cash developed his “rockabilly” style, he was then contracted by Sun Records. The museum had the original copy of ‘I Walk The Line’ signed by Johnny Cash and the producer Sam Phillips.
One day in the studio Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, and Johnny Cash came together for an impromptu jam session. This jam session would come to be known as the Million Dollar Quartet. Johnny Cash later wrote in his autobiography that he sang at a higher pitch to blend in with Elvis.
Johnny Cash would later marry June Carter who came herself from a legendary musical family. June’s mother, Maybelle Carter, was part of the trio who first recorded their music at the Bristol Sessions. It was 1927 and musicians from across the country came to the small town of Bristol that sits on the border of Tennessee and Virginia in order to use the latest technology to record their music. These days of recording frequently saw the Carter family as they recorded not only their own music, but joined with others. Brad and I visited the Birthplace of Country Music Museum there in Bristol a couple of years ago and loved learning more about these musical legends that paved the way for other artists.
From June 1969 to March 1971, Johnny Cash had his own program at the Ryman Auditorium. Many artists were boosted into popularity from being featured on the Johnny Cash Show. During this time he had reconnected with his Christian roots and the final program of the Johnny Cash Show was a gospel music special with other artists.
Johnny Cash was friends with all the presidents and performed multiple times at the White House. President Nixon learned that not even he could tell Johnny Cash what to sing and best to let him sing what he wanted to sing. He was even the Grand Marshall for the United States Bicentennial parade.
In 1980 Cash was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and at the time he was the youngest inductee at 48. He also was inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Gospel Music Hall of Fame. His style always transcended the musical boundaries. He would record a grand 97 albums throughout his life. The museum is home to every album cover adorning a wall and another wall with his gold and platinum albums.
Cash was not only a musician but he was artist as well. He was constantly sketching and drawing. He sketched his own Shroud of Turin that he kept in the pages of his bible. In 1971 he received an honorary Doctorate Degree in Divinity from Gardener- Webb University. He never forgot the grass roots of gospel singing that he had grown up with and many on his songs carried themes of moral tribulation and redemption.
The last area of the museum had screens playing the music video for his song ‘Hurt’. It was such a powerful moment watching the clips from his life. June Carter passed away at the age of 73 in May 2003. She urged him to keep working and taking that to heart, he recorded 60 more songs in the next 4 months of his life. Johnny Cash passed away in September 2003 at the age of 71.
What an incredible experience to learn more about Johnny Cash and the impact that he had on the music world. Though certainly a man with troubled periods of heartache, rejection, and addiction he continued to create music that reached to the heart of people. This museum is a beautiful tribute to his life and legacy of being the Man in Black.
If you enjoyed reading on this music legend, then you might be interested in other places in Tennessee connected to Johnny Cash:
Thanks for coming along on this visit to the Johnny Cash Museum. May you find life and love like a ring of fire.