When Bill Miller was 13 years old, he went to a Johnny Cash concert that changed the course of his life.
“Johnny Cash played a harmonica and tossed it into the audience when he was done,” Bill says. “I caught it.”
That was just the beginning. Over the years, Bill collected a treasure trove of Johnny Cash memorabilia and became friends with the legendary entertainer. “I honestly can’t tell you how many pieces I have. It’s in the thousands.”
After Johnny’s death, Bill decided to share his collection with the public as a tribute to “The Man in Black.” The Johnny Cash Museum opened in downtown Nashville in 2013 and has been drawing visitors ever since. It is within walking distance from where riverboats usually dock at the Nashville riverfront.
Marbles were the few toys young J.R. Cash had in his childhood.
When the American Serenade docked in Nashville, I easily walked down Broadway Street with all its famous bars, music clubs, gift shops and restaurants. The Johnny Cash Museum was one of the shore excursions featured by the Serenade during our two days in Nashville and I was heading to the museum as well as other local attractions.
“People love the museum,” Bill says. “They feel a personal connection to Johnny Cash when they walk through these exhibits. It all comes back to the authenticity. His music speaks to people’s hearts. Johnny Cash had an incredible ability to connect to fans that identified with each song’s message.”
‘My love, my life’
For Marie Anderson of Cincinnati, the museum was a way to learn more about her favorite singer. “When I heard about this museum, I knew I had to come,” Marie says. “It is even better than I hoped and I plan to come back once more before I leave Nashville.”
What she enjoyed most, Marie adds, was seeing items from Johnny’s childhood and his marriage to June Carter Cash in 1968. “He only lived four months after she died in 2003. What he wrote on that box of Valentine candy he gave her in 1998 seems to say it all — ‘My Love, My Life, For Life.'”
Johnny Cash gave this box of Valentine candy to his wife in 1998.
Walking in his footsteps, visitors traverse exhibits from Johnny’s life, including his hardscrabble childhood days in Dyess, Ark., his Air Force years, his famous prison concert tour, his TV and movie career, his marriage to June Carter and his final days.
Items include four glass marbles that were among his few childhood toys, a Future Farmers of America card signed by a young J.R. Cash, a 12th-grade report card, an Air Force Bible and a guitar with a dollar bill stuffed into the upper strings.
Because Johnny’s band did not have a drummer until later, the dollar bill was used to simulate the sound of drums keeping a beat. You can hear this the most in the original recording of “I Walk the Line.”
The stone wall from Johnny’s lakeside room in his Hendersonville house that burned was one of Bill’s biggest saves. Displayed in the museum, the stone wall commemorates the mind-boggling “guitar pulls” that Johnny hosted with famous friends like Bob Dylan and Kris Kristofferson.
Because his band didn’t have a drummer, Johnny Cash used this dollar bill in his guitar to simulate a beat.
“The wall was removed stone by stone from the lakeside room,” Bill says. “After the house burned down, we wanted to allow fans to still see a part of the house, so we reconstructed it in the museum.”
A photo of the Highwaymen – Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson
How J.R. Became Johnny Cash
Johnny Cash determined to become a singer, despite the odds against him. To his parents and family members, the young man was always J.R. That was the name on his birth certificate. His mother wanted to name him John after her father. His father wanted to name him Ray after himself. They couldn’t decide so they named him J.R.
When Johnny went in the Air Force, the government wasn’t going to allow a serviceman to have two initials for his name. They told him that wouldn’t do. So the young airman said his name was John and that’s what people started calling him. Maybe, his Mom won after all.
Johnny Cash in his time at Sun Records
‘God has his hand on you’
Johnny not only sang growing up, he also wrote songs. His mother often said, “J.R., God has his hand on you. You will be great and you will sing.'”
Church played a big part in the Cash family. The family went to church every Sunday morning, Sunday night and Wednesday night.
Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley in their early careers
At the museum, visitors can put on headphones and listen to Johnny’s music from various decades, including one of his final hit releases before his death – the heart-rending video for “Hurt.” In it, the tormented still-powerful voice intones, “Everyone I know goes away in the end.”
Johnny was 71 years old when the video was filmed in February 2003. He died seven months later on Sept. 12 of complications from diabetes.
Seen in the video sadly gazing at her husband of 35 years, June Carter Cash died May 15, three months after filming. Cause of death was complications following heart-valve replacement surgery.
Johnny and June Carter Cash are buried in Hendersonville Memory Gardens in Hendersonville, Tennessee.
“That is one of the saddest videos I have ever seen,” says Joe Mitchell, of St. Louis. “You can tell Johnny Cash knew he wasn’t going to live much longer, but he is still singing. He left us quite a legacy.”
Bottom Line: Johnny Cash Museum is an easy walk from the American Serenade docking spot at Nashville riverfront. The museum is well worth the walk for Johnny Cash fans or those interested in learning more about music. Museum is well organized with film clips and listening stations to hear Johnny Cash music through the decades. Personal items from Johnny and June Carter Cash add to the museum memorabilia. Final exhibit is a heartbreaker – video of Johnny singing “Hurt” shortly before he died.
Photos by Jackie Sheckler Finch
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