Back in Black: Exploring Johnny Cash's Nashville

In his remarkable, transformative lifetime, Nashville was never Johnny Cash’s home. Now, it is.

Born in Dyess, Ark., Johnny Cash rose to a place among the most celebrated and important performers in American popular music history. His legacy and Nashville’s legacy are indelibly intertwined—Cash’s success helped build Nashville’s branch of Columbia Records, sustained and encouraged a community of great Nashville songwriters including Kris Kristofferson, Mickey Newbury and Rodney Crowell, and made the public aware of Nashville’s place as “Music City, USA.” Still, the fact is, Nashville was never Johnny’s home.

Bill Miller, a close friend of Cash’s who operates the Johnny Cash Museum (110 3rd Ave. S., 615.256.1777), which opened in 2013 and features carefully curated artifacts that tell Cash’s story, is ready to change that. “This is Johnny’s place,” he says. “His imprint has been on Nashville since he first came to Nashville (in the 1950s, to play the Grand Ole Opry), but the city had been denuded of Johnny Cash,” Miller says. “Now, his presence has been restored. Cash is back.”

That’s a good thing, because so many of Cash’s Middle Tennessee landmarks have gone away. His famous, Braxton Dixon-designed home at 200 Caudill Drive in nearby Hendersonville was destroyed by fire in 2007. His House of Cash museum and gift shop in Hendersonville closed in the early 1990s, after the death of Cash’s mother, Carrie. The record shop where Cash spent hours combing through the collection—Tower Records on West End Avenue—was bulldozed years ago. And another fire gutted Cash’s favorite Nashville hangout—the home, studio and playpen of dear friend Cowboy Jack Clement at 2102 Belcourt Avenue in 2011.

“His ground zero in Nashville was Jack Clement’s studio,” says Opry member and former Cash son-in-law Marty Stuart. “Many mornings, he’d drop (son) John Carter Cash off at school and head straight to Cowboy’s, go upstairs and sing whatever was on his mind. For Johnny Cash, Cowboy’s was the heart of the matter.”

Clement’s home was a creative nerve center for Cash, but there are other Nashville locales of spots of significance to the “Man In Black,” though few of them are open to the public. Columbia Recording Studios (804 16th Ave. S.) is where Cash recorded many of his classics, and where a young janitor named Kris Kristofferson swept up and made coffee for Cash, Bob Dylan and others. The old studio building now serves as a recording classroom for Belmont University.

Johnny Cash

We used to go out on Sundays, down to the TGI Friday’s at (2212) Ellison Place and have brunch,” says Chance Martin, a longtime Cash associate who hosts Siriux-XM satellite radio’s “Alamo Jones Show.” But the Friday’s where Crowell once worked as a dishwasher is gone now, too. Luckily, another favorite Cash restaurant, Center Point Barbecue at 1212 W. Main Street in Hendersonville, is still going strong.

The Ryman Auditorium (116 5th Ave. N., 615.889.3060) remains a Mecca for Cash fans. As a young rockabilly singer on Memphis’ Sun Records, Cash came to the Ryman on July 7, 1956, for his first Opry appearance. He wore a white jacket with black trim, an outfit made by his mother. He was introduced that day as “the brightest rising star of country music” by June Carter’s first husband, honky-tonk star Carl Smith. Twelve years later, June Carter would become June Carter Cash.

“He had a quiver in his voice, but it wasn’t stage fright,” wrote Ben A. Green in The Nashville Banner. “The haunting words of ‘I Walk The Line’ began to swell through the building. And a veritable tornado of applause rolled back. The boy had struck home, where the heart is.”

After that first show, Cash said, “It’s the ambition of every hillbilly singer to reach the Opry in his lifetime.” True enough, though Cash wound up getting himself kicked off the Opry in 1965 after he smashed the stage’s footlights out with his microphone stand. He was told not to come back to the Opry, and he didn’t, but when ABC approached him four years later about a venue in which to record “The Johnny Cash Show,” he insisted on doing it at the Ryman.

Johnny Cash's boots

“ABC wanted no part of that,” Miller says. “You’re gonna ask James Taylor and Louis Armstrong and Linda Ronstadt to come to a building that doesn’t even have air conditioning? But he respected the Ryman and what it stood for, and despite the fact that the Opry had asked him not to return, the Ryman was the first place he chose. Johnny was not a punitive person. He didn’t hold grudges. And every single week that the show aired, viewers nationwide heard an introduction that assured the program was coming to them ‘Live from ‘Music City, USA, Nashville, Tennessee.’”

Cash’s show was a calling card for a city still confused enough about its own identity to call itself “The Athens of the South.” And it provided a forum for Cash to spread the word about his favorite young performers, including Chris Gantry, Tom T. Hall and Kristofferson (Cash sang Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” and refused ABC’s sensors’ admonition to change “wishin’, Lord, that I was stoned” to “wishin’, Lord, that I was home”).

“A lot of artists saw that show and said, ‘I’m going to Nashville,’” Miller says. “They said, ‘If Mama Cass is there, Neil Diamond is there, Neil Young is there, Linda Ronstadt is there, something’s going on.’ And a lot of those artists ended up at Cash’s front gate, and he welcomed them in.”

That front gate was on Caudill Drive in Hendersonville, where Cash routinely hosted “Songwriter Circles” that featured talents including Bob Dylan, Mickey Newbury, Graham Nash, Joni Mitchell, Shel Silverstein and more. Some memorabilia from the house resides at the Johnny Cash Museum, and a Gray Line bus tour still takes visitors by the site of the home. That tour also includes stops at the Cash Museum, at the gravesites of Johnny and June at Hendersonville Memory Gardens, and at The Whippoorwill Restaurant in Gallatin, Tenn., where tourists can hear stories from restaurant owner and Cash friend/collaborator Loney Hutchins.

In his lifetime, Johnny Cash and Nashville were unsteady partners. Cash appreciated his friendships here, loved the Ryman, spent hours at Elder’s Bookstore (2115 Elliston Place, 615.327.1867; “He loved deep books,” Stuart says) and had joyful times recording at Columbia. But he assiduously avoided Music Row recording trends, and his status as an atypical, often solitary artist kept him a cool remove from what was happening in the momentary mainstream.

Still, Cash would not be Cash without Nashville, and Nashville would not be Nashville without Cash. They helped each other, at times warily, to unimaginable triumphs. Miller’s museum offers Nashville visitors a never-before-available chance to examine Cash’s life and career. It is filled with artifacts both professional and personal: Priceless guitars, his Air Force uniform, hand-written letters, and cotton from his childhood home of Dyess. “People are sometimes surprised, even shocked that it’s so highly personal,” Miller says. “What makes the difference here is that they actually get to know Johnny Cash.”

“Whatever anybody needs to know about my dad that they don’t know already is in that museum,” said Cindy Cash after touring the collection.