By Jane Boxall
I’ll be honest — I recognize Johnny Cash’s unique voice. I know ‘Folsom Prison Blues’, ‘Ring of Fire’ and ‘I Walk the Line’ (the latter being an ill-advised karaoke pick of the past). But other than the songs that are absorbed by osmosis by musicians, I frankly knew almost nothing about Johnny Cash’s life and work. So, it was time to pay a visit to the Johnny Cash Museum, nestled just off Nashville’s Broadway.
The museum is cozy and compact, yet it manages to squeeze in a lot of information and artefacts relating to Cash’s life and legacy. The first part of the exhibit evokes Cash’s youthful trajectory from Alabama farmer to being stationed in Germany with the Air Force. It was interesting to see how his handwriting — from transatlantic letters home through to late-career setlist revisions — changed over the decades.
I hadn’t realized how varied and prolific Cash’s musical career had been. Entire walls are taken up by his albums, singles, gold discs and various industry gongs for his work. His music career was multi-faceted, including gospel, folk, blues, rock’n’roll and rockabilly music as well as the country style that I most associate with Cash. The museum reminds the visitor that Cash is the only artist to have been inducted into all three of the Country Music, Gospel Music and Rock and Roll Halls of Fame. Outside music, Cash appeared in many movies and TV shows; he was also quite a social activist — pressing for prison reform, and bringing attention to the plight of Native Americans in his time.
As a drummer myself, I’d heard the name W.S. Holland in passing, but hadn’t known that Holland was the only drummer Cash played with throughout his career. The museum hosts Holland’s gorgeous 1960s Slingerland drum kit, complete with signed vintage sticks. This was the point of the tour where I came closest to actually drooling:
Although quite a small space, the Cash museum has several of Johnny’s guitars on display, as well as stage outfits, his trademark black hats, and artefacts from his official fan club. The houses that Johnny and June lived in were apparently open for fans to drop by — they operated an antiques store in one home, while the other was an impressive lake house on the outskirts of Nashville. The stone wall from this lake house, which featured in the video for ‘Hurt’, is reconstructed within the museum — the house itself burned down after Cash’s death.
I’d seen the video for ‘Hurt’ once before, I think on a TV at the gym. Watching the complete video in the low-lit museum at the end of the tour revealed the power and depth of the song, and the history Cash had walked through by the last year of his life. As with most music, context truly enriches the listening or viewing experience. Seeing this video with Cash’s instruments and possessions surrounding me was incredibly moving, and left me wanting to dig into this remarkable artist’s discography. Exiting through the gift shop there are, of course, opportunities to stock up on Cash books, recordings and apparel. There’s also a classy coffee shop that keeps the same hours as the museum — 9 til 7 daily.