I grew up in the 60s to the beat of the Beatles, though music from my dad’s country collection – Hank Williams, Marty Robbins, Johnny Cash – also seeped into my soul. I didn’t realise how much it had seeped in till I grew up, and had lived a little. That’s when I knew why Hank Williams was dubbed ‘The Hillbilly Shakespeare’, as songs like Cold, Cold Heart and Your Cheating Heart were universal. Marty Robbins could set up a short story in two lines: ‘Out in the West Texas town of El Paso, I fell in love with a Mexican girl.’ And Johnny Cash was… well, Johnny Cash, The Man in Black, who wrote one of the greatest lines in country music: ‘I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.’
I’m in Nashville, staying out at the Gaylord Opryland Resort, walking distance from the Grand Ole Opry itself. As I board the shuttle bus to downtown, the driver asks me where I’m headed. When I tell him first stop is the Johnny Cash Museum, he replies: ‘I grew up two blocks from Johnny’s house, used to fish in the pond in his back yard in Hendersonville.’
Like two other music legends, Hank Williams and Elvis Presley, Cash grew up in rural southern poverty. All three also wrestled with demons that drove them to drink and/or drugs. In the Johnny Cash Museum his addictions are neither sensationalized nor sanitized, as they were so much a part of the man’s life.
Hello, I’m Johnny Cash,’ is the appropriate gravel-voiced greeting as you enter the museum to see the Man in Black’s long black overcoat, just one of a treasure trove of personal items in the collection. A touch-screen display shows a mock-up of the 1940s Sears and Roebuck radio that the young JR (which is how he was christened) was allowed to listen to country music for no more than 15 minutes at a time, his workload in the cotton fields permitting.
Here’s Cash’s High School Yearbook, the family Bibles, a postcard home to his folks, and four colored glass marbles, one of the few toys Cash owned. The Depression Era poverty screams out, not only in the few paltry possessions but in the fact that clearly nothing was ever thrown out.
By 1954 Cash was earning a living selling appliances in Memphis when he teamed up with The Tennessee Two to make music: guitarist Luther Perkins and bass player Marshall Grant. I gaze at Perkins’ battered old amp and wonder how anyone ever got any music out of it. Peering closer I see a card which says this was the amp used to record I Walk the Line, Folsom Prison Blues and other early Cash hits.
Those hits can be seen on video display units, one for each decade from the 1950s to the 2000s, from his first recording for Sun Studios, Hey Porter, to the painful video of a dying Cash singing Hurt, the Nine Inch Nails’ song that he made his own, his anthem, his requiem.
A whole room is given over to that special time at Sun Studios in Memphis when Cash, Elvis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, and Jerry Lee Lewis were all producing hits for Sam Phillips. A 1956 royalty check is made out to Cash for $15,185.04 and dated 14th February, 1957. That’s about $127,000 in today’s money – some Valentine present for a boy who grew up picking cotton. A wall of 45s faces a wall of album covers, and in other rooms are stage suits, hand-written lyrics, Cash’s camera equipment, a 1981 diary with his concert dates written in.
After two hours I decide it’s time to leave, but only after one last look at that video of Hurt, one of the most powerful and moving music videos ever made. ‘Everyone I know, goes away in the end.’ Well… I guess if you ain’t crying, it ain’t country music.
The Johnny Cash Museum is at 119 Third Avenue South, Nashville. Tel: (615) 256-1777.
The life and work of Johnny Cash lives on at The Johnny Cash Project, a fascinating artistic collaboration by fans around the world who were all saddened at the passing of The Man in Black.
All photos by Mike Gerrard.