A Nashville museum shines a light on music’s Man in Black, writes Kristie Kellahan.
Visitors to the Johnny Cash Museum in downtown Nashville are greeted by the distinctive, deep bass-baritone of the Man in Black himself.
Opened in June 2013, the museum brings together hundreds of documents, letters, costumes, musical instruments, awards and film footage. Founder Bill Miller was a long-time friend of Cash's and avid collector of Cash memorabilia. His vast collection was supplemented by family mementoes from Cash's children and siblings.
Considering Cash's stellar career – he recorded more than 1500 songs, sold more than 100 million records and is the only recording artist to have songs on the billboard charts for six consecutive decades – the museum is a fitting homage. It took a decade after the death of the musician to bring the museum to life.
Every item tells a story and visitors are recommended to take their time to soak up the details. The well-thumbed Bibles speak volumes about this believer; raised southern Baptist, he held on to his faith to the end, while struggling with demons of substance abuse and earthly temptations. Life-size family photos show the evolution from poor farmer's son in Arkansas to glitzy White House appearances.
Tin cups are a reminder of Cash's frequent visits to perform for prisoners behind bars. The humanitarian in him shunned political correctness and connected with people who were forgotten, cheated or thrown away by society. Grainy black and white film footage of his 1968 concert at Folsom Prison makes as deep an impact today as it must have 45 years ago, the first time most Americans saw inside a prison.
The well-thumbed Bibles speak volumes about this believer.
Dozens of movie posters reflect Cash's foray into feature films, while novels he penned and sketches he drew reveal the diversity of his artistic talents. A wall of gold records herald his immense popularity. Headphones at listening stations stream songs, some long-forgotten, others – Ring of Fire, Jackson, Folsom Prison Blues – instantly recognisable.
The museum's gift shop has been well considered and designed. Cash fans will find a bounty of memorabilia and souvenirs to take home, with everything from an $8500 rare acoustic guitar to a size 0 baby's black onesie sporting the cute slogan "crawl the line".
Cash had strong ties to Nashville and it's fitting this museum dedicated to his life should find a home in the city that lives and breathes music. He performed countless times here and it was at the Grand Ole Opry in 1956 he first laid eyes on June Carter, who would become his wife, his muse, his partner on stage and off. Together he and June built The Lake House, a sprawling home 32 kilometres outside Nashville, where they lived, made music and welcomed fans.
A fire razed the house after the deaths of Johnny and June in 2003 (within months of each other; most agree Johnny died of a broken heart after losing June). New owner Barry Gibb permitted furniture, personal effects and an interior wall of the house to be salvaged and they are on display at the museum. Observant fans will recognise the stone wall from the music video of Hurt, one of the last songs Cash recorded. A metre high red velvet heart, the remnant of some long ago Valentine's Day gift, bears the words, "June, my love, my life, for life".
When I finally left the museum (a planned one-hour visit had turned into almost three hours), I strolled along the main street of Nashville, named Broadway but known to all as Honky Tonk Highway. Bands play all day and night for tips in the bars lining both sides of the street. The song spilling out of three bars that evening was Walk the Line. Cash's legend lives on.
United Airlines flies daily to Nashville from Sydney and Melbourne via San Francisco and Los Angeles. See united.com.
The Omni Nashville Hotel is a modern, luxury hotel in the heart of the downtown music precinct. Rooms from $330 a night. See omnihotels.com.
The museum is open daily from 10am to 7pm, general admission is $20.
The writer travelled at her expense, with some assistance from the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corporation.