Johnny Cash has been one of my favorite musicians since my freshman year of college, when I first caught bits of the film Walk the Line and waded deeper into not only Cash’s music, but his life. I’d spend free time watching performances of his online and, through my own purchases and presents, stocked my bookshelf with biographical, autobiographical, encyclopedic, and poetic collections that encompass a lot of who he was. While perusing the clothing racks in Kohl’s one day, I found a dark gray short-sleeved shirt that read, in glimmering letters, “Johnny Cash, the man in black.” Naturally, I dropped a silly amount of money on it. And after buying a ukelele, my parents gifted me with a book of Johnny Cash sheet music. They’re the only songs I know how to play.
Unsurprisingly, the first thing I added to my list of needs on a family trip to Nashville was to visit the Johnny Cash Museum.
The Johnny Cash Museum in Nashville, Tennessee, is similar to my own stockpile, except way, way better. I’ve got the information in my pocket, but they’ve got the real deal artifacts. It’s an anthology of Cash, his work, his family, and his passions. Easily the best part is how intimately the museum has been designed. Johnny Cash hand wrote a number of the placards on display, and the sum of his life feels remembered and palpable between letters, instruments, performance wear, and a look at the influence he sparked.
Where a lot of Johnny Cash’s allure comes from is the badass persona he presented onstage paired with his quiet nature, the compassion that poured out of his veins, and an overall gentleness that played a large part of his character. His life was difficult, to say the least. The child of poor, religious parents, Cash also lost his older brother when Cash was ten, and lived with the guilt imposed on him by his abusive father. Music was a saving grace for the family, speeding the days up as they tended to their cotton farm, and his work as a musician took hold while in the Air Force.
He was incredibly intelligent, moving up the ranks until eventually he became a crack Morse Code operator. There, he was the first American to hear of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s death (I know, isn’t that wild?!). And it was here that he penned his famous tune “Folsom Prison Blues.” Cash went on, of course, to become one of the greatest artists of all time. He was a singer, as well as an eloquent writer and poet.
I could go on writing pages about him, but I’ll leave it here (for now).
We began at the beginning, pausing over everyday items from him childhood, his first professional guitar, and letters written to siblings and his second wife, June Carter Cash.
How many people have the opportunity to write their own placards? The one below reads, “My first ‘professional’ guitar. 1955-1956. On loan from Marshall Grant, (then and now).”
A row of standing tablets and their accompanying headphones gives guests the option to listen to covers of Johnny Cash’s songs done by recent artists. Not to mention, getting to see costumes worn by Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon in Walk the Line was WONDERFUL.
This has become one of my favorite photos: the Million Dollar Quartet. From their spontaneous converging at Sun Studios, a raw album was conceived after Sun owner Sam Phillips thought to turn the recorders on.
Some memorabilia from fan clubs and concerts fans out in a room playing a loop of some of Cash’s performances.
On one wall hangs all of his album covers, and on a couple of others, all of his records. He’s sold more than 90 million records globally—about the number of cake slices I hope to consume in my lifetime.
One of the best parts of the museum, to me, was the number of candid photo collages from album photo shoots and recording sessions. I loved watching the string of actions and emotions that tumbled into one another between Johnny and whoever he was with and the photographer. It felt fresh, innocent, like we were seeing him through his own lens.
Robert Hillburn authored a biography called “Johnny Cash: The Life,” and in it he recounted a regret that Cash brought with him to the end of his life: the wish that he’d focused more seriously on his work. That he’d spent less time involved in alcohol and drugs and “foolishness” and worked harder. This has always stuck with me, primarily because he was so talented and it is so evident in all that he did produce. He wrote pretty much every one of his own songs, published novels, toured widely and frequently, and was at the forefront of the rockabilly, contemporary country, rock, and folk genres.
Beyond that, he was an advocate for prison reformation, civil rights, and human rights, all of which he included in his music. He raised five children and married the love of his life. Still, he was haunted by his demons; and the successes of his life, to him, didn’t measure up to the darkness that presided over.
The victory and the tragedy, rolled together and compiled into the intricacies that remains the Man in Black. Here, you see it all.
His last music video, “Hurt,” emanates those ideas, and a few items from that performance are on display. The mantle from his home in Hendersonville, destroyed by a fire in 2007, survived and stands here.
It’s nice how small it is, a snapshot fitting a chaotic, loving, and humbling life. I felt close to him there; though I obviously never knew him, I glimpsed new sides of him that left me even more in awe of his spirit. It celebrates all of his angles, curated to bring guests deeper inside his complexities. Even without information cards, I could tell how much meaning everything carried. And for a museum to have so much heart, well, that’s a testament to true remembrance.
The Johnny Cash Museum
119 3rd Ave S, Nashville, TN
Tickets can be purchased here.
Even if you don’t know much about or haven’t listened to too many songs by Johnny Cash, I still highly recommend a visit here. You’ll get a heaping taste of who he was, and through him, who Nashville is. It’s a love note to man and city at once, one working off the other, and lending to an even more appreciative stance of the music culture that thrives here.
Cash: The Autobiography by Johnny Cash
Johnny Cash: The Life by Robert Hillburn
Forever Words: The Unknown Poems by Johnny Cash (ed. and ill. by Paul Muldoon)
House of Cash: The Legacies of My Father, Johnny Cash by John Carter Cash
Have you checked out the Johnny Cash Museum? What points were most memorable for you?