Nashville Welcomes the Johnny Cash Museum
Downtown Nashville will soon be getting a new celebrity attraction that promises to become both a tourist mecca and a destination for music scholars from around the world. It’s the Johnny Cash Museum, dedicated to celebrating the life and career of CMA’s Country Music Hall of Fame member Johnny Cash.
Officially sanctioned by the Cash family, the museum claims to house the largest collection of Johnny Cash memorabilia in the world. Its creation was the brainchild of California businessman Bill Miller, whose friendship with the singer began when Miller was just a boy.
“I became a Cash fan when a third-grade classmate of mine brought a copy of Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison to school for a show and tell session,” Miller recalled. “The teacher put the record on the turntable. There was electricity in the air and I was hooked.”
Three years later, he attended his first Johnny Cash concert, where he met Johnny and wife, June, in person. Miller, author of the biography Cash: An American Man, launched and for 16 years has overseen the official Johnny Cash website, www.JohnnyCash.com, which hosts “The Johnny Cash Radio Show,” presented by Miller and his wife, Shannon, and is heard in more than 40 countries.
Establishing a permanent museum to honor his friend and hero is the realization of a dream for Miller, who made it his lifelong mission to amass as many Cash collectibles as possible, sleuthing out rare or missing items with a dedication worthy of Sherlock Holmes. Today, Miller owns the most comprehensive Johnny Cash collection in existence, which he looks forward to sharing with the public.
Asked why the time is right to open a Johnny Cash Museum, Miller responded enthusiastically, “The most obvious answer to that is, why not? You’re looking at one of the most recognized artists in entertainment history, a man who has his fingerprints all over Nashville and Nashville had its fingerprints all over him. I get emails from people through the website from all around the world who are planning their trips to America and want to know where they can come to learn everything about Johnny Cash. Until now, there hasn’t been anywhere for them to go.”
When all phases are completed, with Miller shouldering an estimated investment of up to $7 million, the museum will occupy two full stories at 119 Third Avenue South, just south of Broadway and a stone’s throw from the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, the Ernest Tubb Record Shop, the honky-tonks along Lower Broadway and other popular tourist destinations. Noting that “I don’t think we could be in a better location,” Miller projected first-year attendance could top 150,000 visitors, each of whom will pay approximately $13 per ticket at the door.
While the museum’s opening date has yet to be announced, its gift shop is scheduled to open this week. Visit www.Facebook.com/JohnnyCashMuseum for updates.
Nearly a thousand items will be on permanent display. Additional customized exhibits will rotate on a regular basis, showcasing unique items and memorabilia on loan from the Cash family and friends.
Exhibits will be arranged in timeline fashion, allowing visitors to enjoy a three-dimensional exploration of Cash’s life in breathtaking detail. They can utilize state-of-the-art interactive graphics, video and iPad technology to view writings, artwork, photographs, instruments, stage-worn apparel, books, sheet music, LPs, awards and honors that held relevance in the singer’s life. The museum will also have a 250-seat venue that will be used for events, live broadcasts and performances.
Every stage of the artist’s life will be examined, from his beginnings as one of seven children picking cotton on the family farm in Dyess, Ark., through his Air Force service, his rise to superstardom through a successful recording/songwriting career and a wildly popular television show, his marriages and children, his Christian faith and spiritualism and finally to his last years. This chronology will culminate in the artifact that represents the final component of his life — a song written in his own hand, titled “My Lord Has Gone,” which Cash penned just three weeks before his death in 2003.
Among the more unusual items on display will be Cash’s childhood membership card from the Future Farmers of America and a W-9 form documenting his employment in the Pontiac plant where the singer briefly worked prior to joining the United States Air Force. Hallmarks of his military service will include a German translation manual, a fishing license he obtained for recreational time off base and handwritten transcriptions he wrote in his duties as a radio intercept operator as he monitored for secret codes or enemy messages. There is a handwritten receipt from the landlord of an apartment Cash rented in Memphis after marrying his first wife, Vivian Liberto, and a marriage license made out in the names of John R. Cash and June Carter.
Some of these artifacts took years of painstaking personal effort on Miller’s part to locate. For instance, the famous “House of Cash” sign mysteriously disappeared not long after the landmark building in Hendersonville, Tenn., was shuttered. Miller tracked the sign down, eventually finding it back in Dyess, and restored it for display in the museum. And when a 2007 fire destroyed Johnny’s and June’s former home in its final days of renovation by new owner Barry Gibb, Miller was given permission to salvage individual stones from an interior wall of the house. Visitors will also see many original furnishings from that home, including a fully-set dining room table featuring June’s china.
“The stones were taken from the room where Johnny filmed the video for ‘Hurt,’” said Miller. “We’re using the dismantled stones to replicate a portion of that room.”
In addition to his decades-long search for “things Cash,” Miller received a number of gifts directly over the years from the singer himself or from family members. “Sometimes I felt like I was on a search-and-rescue mission,” he explained. “But I always knew that the things I was rescuing would one day be used in a positive way.”
Another arresting bit of memorabilia is a postcard from young J. R. Cash to his parents while he was on a high school senior class trip from Dyess to Nashville. “Ironically, the class went to the Grand Ole Opry, where who do you think Johnny saw for the first time performing but June Carter, who would later become his wife,” Miller noted. “We have the handwritten postcard Johnny sent to his parents on that trip, addressed simply, ‘Mr. And Mrs. Ray Cash, Dyess, Arkansas.’ On it, he wrote, ‘Dear Mom and Dad, having a great time. J.R.’ It’s a snapshot of the future because he’s on his way to Nashville, a place he would make famous around the world, and he sees his future wife for the first time.
“We aren’t looking to have an abbreviated version of Johnny’s life with things people already know or have seen,” he continued. “I want people to leave the museum understanding that this was a man who made a difference, a man who inspired people and changed their lives around the world.”
Miller is proud of the enthusiastic support his endeavor has received from the Cash family, including the singer’s siblings, relatives and children. Pointing out that the museum is fully authorized and licensed by the Johnny Cash estate, he said, “I think this recognizes the fact that they have full confidence in what we’re doing. There’s a decades-long friendship between myself and the Johnny Cash family. I know them and I think they feel comfortable with the fact that with the museum in our hands, it’s going to be a dignified, respectful tribute. It’s going to be done right.”
Joanne Cash, sister of the late singer, concurred. “If Johnny Cash were here today and could see what Bill Miller is doing, he would be elated. He would be extremely happy that his memory is being put into a building where people go and look at not only his life but at our whole family’s life.”
Cash’s younger brother Tommy agreed. “Johnny just deserves this more than anything else,” he insisted. “People from all over the world are going to come and see this museum and discover things that they never knew about Johnny. Bill Miller has the blessing of the family.”
As the museum readies for its opening downtown, Miller estimates how it would help enhance the legacy of the Man in Black. “There’s going to be a lot of really cool stuff here, but what I really want people to go away with is the feeling of, ‘This was a man who mattered. Here was a man who wrote great songs that helped people and inspired people everywhere.’ If visitors walk out of the museum thinking, ‘What a great man, I feel like I know him better now,’ then the museum will have accomplished its purpose.” By Kip Kirby