The name of Johnny Cash is synonymous with Nashville and for good reason. 

Steve Turner

Steve is an English music journalist, biographer and poet who has written for NME, Melody Maker and Rolling Stone. A biographer to various household names, his book ‘The Man Called Cash: The Life, Love and Faith of an American Legend is available to buy here.

Published

June 4, 2015

He lived there longer than anywhere else he called home, established The House of Cash in nearby Hendersonville in 1970 and with his wife June Carter mentored generations of younger musicians from their home on Old Hickory Lake. He also enticed many of his favourite contemporary players, singers and writers to appear on his networked TV show broadcast from Nashville, thereby refreshing the image of a city then associated with fiddles, saloon bars, cowboy hats and moonshine whiskey.

You might want to take advantage of being in Nashville to make the four-hour drive down the I-40 and I-55 to Dyess, Arkansas, where the singer lived before signing up for the USF in 1954. The scenery won’t stun you – its flat land and the box-like houses built in the 1930s under the New Deal are basic – but it’ll give you an insight into the origins of Cash and his music.

ROOTS AND SOUNDS

When I first visited his childhood home I was with Everett Henson, an old school friend of his, and 108 Center Drive was still a private house. Now it has been purchased and restored by Arkansas State University and meticulously restored to look the way it did when Cash was a child. Situated alone outside the small community this is where he was shaped by the religion of his mother, the tantrums of his father, the death of his brother, the surrounding cotton fields and the gospel, blues, folk and country music he was able to find on the family radio.

Inside Johnny Cash’s boyhood home

Taking an alternative slightly longer route back to Nashville you could pass through Memphis (only 50 miles from Dyess) where he had his first family home (at 2553 Tutwiler Street), his first civilian job (at the Home Equipment Company, 2529 Summer Avenue) and made his first records (Sun Studio 706 Union Avenue) . In 1955 his daughter Rosanne Cash was born at St. Joseph’s Hospital on Overton Avenue (now demolished), the hospital where Martin Luther King was pronounced dead in April 1968

When success came in 1958 Johnny Cash headed to California but was eventually drawn back to the city that spawned the music he loved. While looking for a perfect property to buy he came across a builder just completing a property at 200 Caudill Drive in Hendersonville. The builder was planning to move in himself but Cash made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.

It was a beautiful wooden home of almost 14,000 square feet built on the edge of Old Hickory Lake and symbolized the new stability that came to his life after marrying June Carter of the prestigious Carter Family musical dynasty. They had regular ‘guitar pulls’ at the house to which younger songwriters like Kris Kristofferson and Joni Mitchell were invited to preview their latest songs.

Cash remained on Old Hickory Lake until his death and three years later the property was sold to Bee Gee Barry Gibb who intended remodeling it and using it as a song writing retreat. However, in 2007, when no one was at home, it burned to the ground. Coach tours still turn up to gaze at the space where it once stood, and also at 185 Caudill Road, the house across the road that he bought for his mother (known as Mama Cash’s House) and where he spent some of his final days.

THE HOUSE OF CASH

Nashville is where country stars make their music and play their shows but they live in outlying cities such as Hendersonville, Franklin and Brentwood where the properties are bigger and the grass is greener. For 33 years Cash ran his business from the House of Cash at 700 Johnny Cash Parkway, Hendersonville, and for part of that time had a museum on the premises. In the grounds he installed a 19th century railway station (Amqui), transported piece by piece from nearby Madison, that was used as June’s antique store.

The museum closed in the 1990s after flood damage. Mark Romanek’s award-winning video for Hurt, shot at the House of Cash, revealed some of the deterioration and also included footage of Cash’s emotional visit to his Dyess home in 1968. After his death the building was sold to Halo Realty who renovated it, kept the name and maintained it as their HQ.

Hurt – Johnny Cash

Halo dismantled Amqui Rail Station and had it taken back the nine miles to Madison where it’s now the centrepiece of a downtown redevelopment and used as a visitor centre at 301B Madison Street, Madison TN 37115. Anyone able to sing a Cash song to the museum guide gets a $5 token to use at the Farmer’s Market.

LOCAL HAUNTS

Central to Cash’s Nashville is the Ryman Auditorium, the home of the Grand Ole Opry from 1943-1974.  It was here that Cash first appeared in 1956, the same night he first met June Carter, who was then married to country star Carl Smith. He appeared many more times at the Ryman but was temporarily banned in 1965 when in a fit of temper he smashed the floor lights with a microphone stand.

From 1969 to 1971 he hosted 59 episodes of The Johnny Cash Show that was broadcast across America by ABC Television. All were filmed at the Ryman. He made a big impression by introducing stars far beyond country including Bob Dylan, Louis Armstrong, Linda Ronstadt, Neil Young, Joe Tex, The Monkees, Lulu, The Staples Singers, Ray Charles, Eric Clapton and James Taylor.

Louis Armstrong & Johnny Cash – Blue Yodel No. 9

Frustratingly a lot of the places Cash frequented have since been demolished, closed or have moved premises. When he arrived in Nashville to live he shared a room with Waylon Jennings at the Fontaine Royale Apartments in Madison but that building has been torn down.

An avid book reader and collector he used to love browsing at Elder’s Bookstore at 2115 Elliston Place. The shop is still in Nashville but now at more modern premises at 101 White Bridge Road. He made records at Columbia Records Studio B at 804 16th Avenue South, known as the Quonset Hut Studio, but this is now a recording classroom for nearby Belmont University.

He’s likely to have bought records at The Ernest Tubb Record Shop which has been at 417 Broadway since 1947. You would think he’d hung out at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, a Nashville club institution that since 1960 has been frequented by everyone from Willie Nelson and Jim Reeves to Taylor Swift but not so. In 1995 Cash told the Tennessean; “I never hung out at Tootsie’s, not one time in my life. They think I have, because most everybody else did. But I never did.”

Museum exhibits have compensated for the lost buildings. The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, at 222 5th Avenue South, is currently running Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats: A New Music City. This exhibition celebrates Bob Dylan’s choice of Nashville to record Blonde on Blonde (1966), John Wesley Harding (1967) and Nashville Skyline (1969), his special relationship with Johnny Cash that included appearing on his TV show at the Ryman Auditorium and the new breed of session musicians who played with both men.

A collection of Cash’s singles at The Johnny Cash Museum

Image by Will Fisher

In 2013 The Johnny Cash Museum opened at 119 3rd Avenue and has been a huge success gaining plaudits not only from former VP Al Gore (“a world class collection”) but musicians who played with him and members of the Cash family. It features everything from stage costumes, guitars and old 78 rpm records to handwritten letters, his US Air Force uniform and a bag of cotton picked in Dyess, Arkansas, that he kept as a reminder of his humble origins.

For the sake of completion you may like to swing by St. Thomas Midtown Hospital (2000 Church Street). This is where both June and Johnny died – June on May 15th 2003 and Johnny four months later on September 12th – when it was known as Baptist Hospital.

Both funerals took place at First Baptist Church Hendersonville (106 Bluegrass Commons Blvd. ) and Johnny and June are buried side by side at Hendersonville Memorial Gardens, (353 Johnny Cash Parkway). Nearby are the graves of June’s daughter, Rosie Nix Adams, sister Anita, and parents Ezra and Maybelle. Other graves of interest are those of Cash’s guitarist Luther Perkins who died in a house fire in 1968 and Merle Kilgore, co-writer (with June) of Cash’s huge hit ‘Ring Of Fire’.

PERSONAL MEMORIES

When I met Cash in 1988 I asked him what image of America he held in his mind when he travelled far from home. He told me about a small property he had deep in the country, 41 miles from Nashville. It was a place he would retreat to when the going got tough, or when he just needed to cleanse his mind and refresh his spirit. It was at 9347 Old Highway 46 in Bon Aqua, Tennessee. It’s not possible to see the house from the road – just the protective iron gates with musical motifs. Built in 1900 the four-bedroom property is currently on the market for $895,000. Despite all the boisterous living and the nights spent on stage he never lost his love for solitude, trees, plants and the sound of running water.

“At the back of the farm there is a spring,” he told me. “It’s a little spring that runs year round, and it’s always fifty-eight degrees, summer or winter. It comes from way deep in the ground.  I think of that a lot when I think of home. I like to get up there and drink from that spring. I just lay on the ground beside it. That’s paradise on earth to me, that little place with the dogwood and sycamore trees all around. You don’t hear a car, a train, a plane, or anything. All you can hear is nature.”

FURTHER READING

Blues Highway: The Story of Route 61
The unknown history of the road that changed music

On The Road
Two friends take the ultimate road trip across the United States

Feast On The Highway: Eat Your Way South
This is not somewhere where you come to eat light…