Johnny Cash is, and always has been, my father’s favorite singer. Johnny Cash’s deep voice was the background noise to much of my childhood. On long road trips, my sister and I could sing along to the entire albums of Johnny Cash: Greatest Hits (all volumes). We’d get in physical brawls over who’s turn it was to be June in a duet. The men in our family sometimes rewarded us with a quarter if we could get through an entire album without fighting. To this day, whenever one Johnny Cash song ends, the next track automatically plays in my mind. I grew up hearing not only his voice, but also stories about Johnny Cash selling out stadiums one day and singing for prisoners the next.
Johnny Cash walked the line of being one of the greatest celebrities in the country, and just your average, God-fearing man. He was blessed with a classic country voice and creative mind, but also had visible anger issues and substance abuse problems. He was arrested for drug smuggling, arson, and had an affair during his first marriage — his mistress being June Carter. All the while, he was also a devout Christian and later, an ordained minister.
His talent made him a superstar. His flaws made him a friend.
When my sister and I visited Nashville together, we knew we had to pay homage to a man who’d been such a prominent figure during our childhood. For us, stepping through the front doors of the Johnny Cash Museum was the same as stepping back in time.
The museum walks you through the life of Johnny Cash and June Carter with over 1,000 artifacts on display. You can look at the clothes they wore, hear music samples recorded on different formats, see his guitars, and watch their live performances. The museum takes you on a journey starting from his childhood, where he grew up on a farm in Arkansas as J.R. Cash, to his rise in fame, to just before his death.
Even his most loyal fans might not have seen the clips of Johnny Cash acting in films and TV dramas. At the Johnny Cash Museum, you can watch parts of his film, Gospel Road: A Story of Jesus, that he produced and financed himself in the early 70s.
The Johnny Cash Museum depicts the life of The Man in Black beautifully. It hints at the suffering under the surface, but leaves much of it unmentioned. It acts as a tribute, rather than a tell-all.
At the exit of the museum, you can watch the music video of Johnny Cash singing a cover of a song by Nine Inch Nails called, “Hurt.” The video about pain and regret was released just one year before his death and has amassed over 100 million views on YouTube. Many argue that it’s his best song and video while others claim it doesn’t represent him or his career in the slightest. To me, the song is simply an ode to a lifetime of fame and pain.
After Johnny Cash died, his son, John Carter Cash, released a book detailing the behind-the-scenes of his parents life. When reporters ask John Carter Cash if his parents would be happy that the book was written, he claims that they would be. He told Reuters, “The honest thing is that my parents wanted to help people.”
My father recently relocated to a town near Folsom, California. Last month, I asked as we drove by a “Welcome to Folsom” type of sign if he thought Folsom ever considered changing its name. I assume that most people associate Folsom with its detention facility, thanks to Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” a song devoted to the unsavory criminals who were housed there at the time. Maybe this association could be bad for business.
“No,” my dad answered, “Why?”
His tone made me feel as if my question was absurd. Not everyone’s initial instinct is to flee from a notorious reputation, as maybe mine would be.
We can try to hide, rename, or bury the things that make us less than perfect, but it won’t make them go away.
Fans of Johnny Cash love him because he refused to bury or hide his negative qualities. Instead, he showed them to the public. While the museum doesn’t detail every flaw of Johnny Cash’s character and life, it doesn’t paint him as a saint, either.