By FRANK HOSEK
Near the end of our visit to the Johnny Cash Museum in Nashville, Tenn., just before you exit, there was a film monitor displaying a continuous loop of Cash's 2003 music video "Hurt."
Cash was 71 years old when he filmed the video. Although tinged with the weariness of age, the distinctive, deep gravelly bass-baritone still resonated. The film is interspersed with images of him as a vibrant, youthful star and, at the time, the discards of the abandoned family-run House of Cash Museum. It provided a stirring and somewhat melancholy narrative of the vagaries of a life's journeys and mortality.
I stood riveted to my spot in front of the monitor. The song and video is both inspiring and heart-rending, and is a fitting epitaph to an iconic music legend; Cash died seven months after filming was completed.
The first time I heard "Folsom Prison Blues," my record collection included, as most did, the Beatles, The Beach Boys and even The Monkees. But when that deep, troubled voice belted out "But I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die," I was mesmerized. It was one of the most incredible and, I thought, telling lyrics I had ever heard. I've been a Cash fan ever since.
Opened in 2013 by Bill Miller, a longtime friend of Cash's and avid collector of Cash memorabilia, The Johnny Cash Museum provides a glimpse into a life and career of ups and downs, tragedies and triumphs. It is filled with artifacts both professional and personal, many mementos supplied by Cash's children and siblings. Through handwritten letters, first drafts of original songs, documents of all sorts, musical instruments, awards and film footage, we found ourselves delving beyond the individual known as The Man in Black.
Johnny Cash was born on Feb. 26, 1932, into a family of dirt-poor cotton farmers. I was struck by the mementos of his childhood. Four glass marbles, scarce, dearly obtained toys of a Depression-era lifestyle. A high school yearbook featuring a picture of a dour-looking, old-before- his-time J.R. Cash. A family Bible belonging to a deeply religious man who spent a lifetime struggling with his convictions. A few paltry items from a hard-scrabble era.
Cash's years in the Air Force during the 1950s are represented and include tidbits like the fact that he was a radio operator monitoring Soviet military traffic while stationed in Germany and was the first Westerner to relay the news of Stalin's death.
After leaving the service, he became one of the most popular and influential musicians of his time. He sold more than 90 million records worldwide and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Country Music Hall of Fame as well as the Song Writer's Hall of Fame.
The museum explores all the facets of a career that propelled him into those various inductions. His early years in Memphis with Sam Phillips and Sun Records are well-represented. Included are tableaus discussing his famous stable mates, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis. These four musicians began an impromptu jam session one afternoon that became famously known as the Million Dollar Quartet.
Just off Broadway on 3rd Avenue, the museum is situated in the heart of Nashville's Honky Tonk Row and just a few blocks away from the Ryman Auditorium. It's a fitting location for a boy who grew up listening to the Grand Ole Opry on a Sears & Roebuck battery-operated radio.
Country music propelled Johnny to great heights, while his cross-over popularity brought new fans to what had previously been considered hillbilly music. But it was an uneasy alliance. In 1958, The Grand Ole Opry, housed in the Ryman, invited him to appear. Less than eight years later, he was banned after smashing some stage lights.
There are several stations where you can slip on a pair of headphones and listen to his songs. His journey musically through the decades is defining. One area has Johnny providing a dramatic reading of his "This Ragged Old Flag," flanked by the oversized graphics of his handwritten lyrics.
A whole wall of LP sleeves exhibits all 96 of his albums, and his collection of gold and platinum record awards provide an incredible display of his accomplishments. There are posters and tickets for shows I wish I had seen. Like Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, the Statler Brothers and the Carter Family for $3.50.
There's an area where you can see portions of his television show, a musical repast that I looked forward to every week with a wide array of guests ranging from the likes of Merle Haggard and Tammy Wynette to a young Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell.
Notebook sheets and scraps of paper filled with lyrics that he would write by hand provide a look into his creative side. Cash's famous black wardrobe and June Carter's elegant stage costumes are presented, as well as tin cups from Folsom Prison. Personal items such as family photos and his marriage certificate to June Carter are also on display.
Cash and Carter met in 1956 at the Grand Ole Opry, and they were married on March 1, 1968. In 2003, the two passed away within four months of one another.
Throughout the museum, June and Johnny's love for each other is indelible. Several photos of a loving couple, a valentine he sent her in 1998 and the poem he wrote for her funeral are just a few mementos of a lasting love affair. The museum celebrates an enduring musical legacy and touches upon the compelling story of Cash's extraordinary life. It is an amazing visual and auditory gem.
This year will mark 15 years since Johnny Cash left us. Based on the crowds we encountered and the diversity of ages represented, his legend continues to grow.
Frank Hosek of Bourbonnais is director of human resources at Carpet Weavers Inc. in Champaign. His hobbies include travel, reading, writing and photography.