An Odyssey in Search of Johnny Cash
Telltales from the man in black
Country music legend Johnny Cash set a record 40 years ago by winning five Country Music Association Awards in a single night. The 43rd annual CMA Awards are this Wednesday, November 11. In the slide show above, tag along on a Johnny Cash journey — just be sure to keep a close watch on that heart of yours.
I was standing in the kitchen stirring a pot of tomato soup when an old friend of my mother’s called.
Kristi taught me how to ride a horse, steer a canoe, and drive a car. During my teenage years, she was the wise adult confidante who listened to my adolescent woes. By the time I reached adulthood, our relationship had developed into an easygoing friendship that transcended age and the nearly 700 miles separating Boston from my hometown. So when she asked if I’d go on vacation with her, I responded, “Hell, yeah!”
My last vacation with Kristi took place in 1988, when she, my mom, and I went to Florida. I was eight years old, and Kristi had a perm. “So,” I said, “where are we going?”
There was a slight pause. “I’d like to take a Johnny Cash pilgrimage,” she said.
Kristi’s obsession with the Man in Black had begun a year and a half earlier, around the time that 20th Century Fox released the Cash biopic Walk the Line. Kristi saw the film nine times — in the theater. Each time I went back to Ohio, her collection of Johnny Cash CDs, books, and DVDs had expanded. I jokingly referred to one of her bookcases as “the shrine.”
My first exposure to Johnny Cash came the day he died, September 12, 2003. I was working for a small newspaper in rural Virginia, and I laid out his obituary. I knew “Ring of Fire,” but my familiarity with the country singer ended there.
If anyone had told me that four years later to the day, I’d be standing by the man’s gravesite, I’d have laughed.
The night flight to Ohio was two hours late, and I didn’t crawl into bed until midnight. Five hours later, at Kristi’s prodding, I was in the front seat of her minivan, a ball cap pulled over my eyes.
“NPR ran a two-hour Johnny Cash biography last week,” she announced, pulling out of the driveway. “I taped it.”
I opened one eye. “Seriously? It’s not even six in the morning.”
Grinning, Kristi popped the cassette into the player, and the familiar chords of “I Walk the Line” broke the stillness. I sighed and glanced at our MapQuest directions: Wooster, Ohio, to Nashville, Tenn. — 477 miles. The van was stocked with at least two dozen Johnny Cash CDs: greatest hits, ballads, gospel, June and Johnny duets.
It was going to be a long ride.
I dozed for the first few hours. Somewhere in Kentucky, in the middle of “A Boy Named Sue,” we passed a sign for Big Bone Lick State Park. “According to the AAA guide,” I said, “the park is located off Beaver Road, between the communities of Beaverlick and Rabbit Hash.”
Kristi snorted. “You’re making that up.”
“It’s the birthplace of American paleontology,” I added, closing the book with a thump. I yawned and stretched my arms. “God, I love a road trip!”
Kristi had spent months planning our pilgrimage. At first we’d meant to visit Nashville and Hendersonville, Tenn., the sprawling suburb where Johnny and June Carter Cash are buried. By September, the expedition also included two nights in Memphis and a side trip to Dyess, Ark.
“Arkansas?” I had shouted. “What the heck is in Arkansas?”
“That’s where Johnny Cash grew up,” Kristi said. “We can drive past his old house.”
We made a deal. I’d go to Dyess if she would agree to visit the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, shop at a Piggly Wiggly, eat fried okra, and listen to “Old Man River” while crossing the Mississippi into Arkansas. “You’re very weird,” she said.
“Hey,” I retorted, “I’m not stalking a dead guy.”
Midafternoon found us driving through Hendersonville in search of Caudill Drive and the scorched remains of Johnny Cash’s lakeside home. The 14,000-square-foot house had burned to the ground not long after Bee Gees vocalist Barry Gibb bought it in 2006. Cash’s 2002 music video “Hurt” was filmed inside, and a replica of the house appeared in Walk the Line.
“I thought he lived out in the middle of nowhere,” I said, eyeing rows of cookie-cutter mansions and cul-de-sacs.
“I think all of this sprouted up in the last decade or so,” Kristi replied. We rounded a slight bend, and on the shores of Old Hickory Lake stood charred ruins. All that was left was the stone foundation, a wooden fence, and the gatehouse. Legend has it that whenever Cash was in a rage, he threw something into the lake, and its muddy bottom is littered with busted guitars, booze bottles, and other debris.
We parked the van and wandered over to the fence. “Will you take some pictures?” Kristi asked.
I was a few yards down the road snapping photos when Kristi jogged over and excitedly grabbed my arm. “You see that guy cutting the grass next door? That’s Marty Stuart!”
I gave her a blank stare. “Who?”
“Marty Stuart! He was in Johnny Cash’s band back in the ’80s and was married to Cindy Cash for a few years.” She clapped her hands. “I can’t believe it! Our first celebrity sighting!”
“If I don’t know who the person is, I’m not sure it counts,” I replied.
* * *
Johnny Cash is buried at Hendersonville Memory Gardens. The cemetery opened in 1965, amidst acres of rolling farmland. But as the community grew, housing developments, fast-food restaurants, and strip malls cropped up faster than dandelions. Today the city’s main thoroughfare, Route 31 — also known as the Johnny Cash Parkway — is a wasteland of big-box retail stores, gas stations, and parking lots.
“It’s certainly not as picturesque as I’d imagined,” Kristi said.
We trudged through the grass, singed from a summer drought, and found our way to the final resting place of Johnny and June Cash. The enormous recessed headstones bore the bronze signatures of both performers. Coins, artificial flowers, candles, guitar picks, and other small mementos left by fans cluttered the area.
Kristi silently knelt by the graves while I examined nearby plots. Other members of the Carter family — Mother Maybelle, June’s sisters, Anita and Helen, and her daughter Rosey — were there, and Merle Kilgore, who co-wrote “Ring of Fire” with June, was nearby.
Glancing back at Kristi, I wondered what it was about Johnny Cash that so fascinated her. Dozens of trinkets left by previous visitors proved she wasn’t alone, but what compelled her to seek out the old stomping grounds of a musician she never knew?
Kristi woke me at six. “What’s on today’s agenda?” I asked, stumbling toward the shower.
“Lots of stuff!” she replied. “The Country Music Hall of Fame, Lower Broadway, the Ryman Auditorium. And I want to hit up all the souvenir shops for Johnny Cash shirts.”
I raised an eyebrow and nodded at her black T-shirt, boldly emblazoned with the name Cash. “But I want more,” she said.
We arrived at Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame on the heels of a senior citizen tour group. The museum features memorabilia of more than 100 country music artists, including Hank Williams, Jim Reeves, and Loretta Lynn. But Kristi was interested only in the man who, at age 48, was the youngest living musician to be inducted.
We spent a few hours mulling over old guitars, 45s, and stage costumes. The exhibits were engaging, even for someone not particularly interested in country music. But Kristi was disappointed. “I thought they’d have more Johnny Cash stuff,” she grumbled.
“It’s the Country Music Hall of Fame,” I pointed out, “not the Johnny Cash Hall of Fame.”
She got her fix at our next stop. Marty Stuart, in addition to mowing his lawn, has one of the largest and most significant country music collections in Nashville, and it happened to be on display at the Tennessee State Museum. The exhibition, Sparkle and Twang: Marty Stuart’s American Musical Odyssey, contained more than 300 artifacts, including a pair of Gene Autry’s boots, Maybelle Carter’s autoharp, and Patsy Cline’s leather makeup kit. More important, it contained enough Johnny Cash paraphernalia to keep Kristi occupied for days. She roamed the museum in a state of wonder, examining every item while I fulfilled photo requests.
We stepped back into sweltering September heat long past lunchtime, grabbed some food from the van, and made our way to Lower Broadway, a 10-block stretch of restaurants, gift shops, and honky-tonk bars. We then ducked into the Ryman Auditorium — former home of the Grand Ole Opry broadcasts — before hitting up the souvenir stores. Kristi bought two T-shirts, two CDs, and three DVDs.
“I guess I know what we’ll be listening to on the way to Memphis,” I cracked.
She responded by whacking the back of my head.
* * *
“We need to stop at this rest area,” Kristi said.
I looked up in surprise. We were only an hour outside of Nashville. “You have to stop already?”
“Not really, but we’re coming up on the Johnny Cash rest area.”
I nearly choked on my orange juice. “The what?”
The stretch of I-40 between Nashville and Memphis is commonly referred to as the Music Highway, because every rest area is named in honor of a musician. And sure enough, mile marker 170 is Johnny Cash’s.
“How did you even know about this?” I demanded. She handed me a book, I Still Miss Someone: Friends and Family Remember Johnny Cash by Hugh Waddell. I scanned a page she’d marked with a post-it note. “Stop at the Johnny Cash rest area,” I read aloud. “Sit by the sign and write a poem.”
We didn’t write any poems, but we did take some pictures.
Sun Studio, founded in 1952 by music pioneer Sam Phillips, is regarded as the birthplace of rock and roll. In the unassuming brick building on a busy Memphis street, Elvis Presley recorded his first hit single, “My Happiness,” in 1953. Two years later, 23-year-old Johnny Cash cut his singles “Hey, Porter” and “Cry, Cry, Cry,” the latter cracking Billboard’s Top 20. By 1956, critics were hailing Cash as one of the greatest artists of the decade, thanks to “I Walk the Line.”
Kristi could barely contain her excitement as our guide, a young musician named Zach, led us into the studio. An enormous photograph of Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis hung on the wall above some old recording equipment. It was taken on December 4, 1956, during an impromptu jam session — the only time all four musicians sang together.
Zach led us to an old-fashioned microphone. “This is the microphone that Elvis used to record ‘My Happiness,’” he said. “Anyone want to try it out?”
Of course, everyone took a turn at the microphone. “Maybe Johnny Cash used it, too,” Kristi whispered to me.
* * *
“Arkansas is pretty desolate,” Kristi said.
Since crossing the Mississippi, we’d seen nothing but cotton fields, mile after mile of spindly brown plants, fluffy white bolls drifting lazily into the sky.
We turned off the interstate and rolled down a country lane until we arrived in Dyess. Laid out in the shape of a wheel, the town consists of a post office, tiny town hall, and some trailers and boarded-up buildings.
Dyess was founded in 1934 as a resettlement colony during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration. At the height of the Great Depression, the community housed about 2,500 residents, including the Cash family. By 1950, when Cash joined the Air Force, the colony had faded, and today, only 515 residents remain.
A woman at the post office recognized us for who we were. “If you don’t live here, I know you’re here for Johnny,” she said. “There was a busload from Scotland that came through two days ago.”
She gave us directions to the old Cash homestead and encouraged us to knock on the owner’s door. “Tell him Janet from the post office sent you!” she called after us.
We drove down a gravel road, past sagging trailers and roadside debris, until a decrepit red-and-white house came into view. A sign in the front yard — “Welcome, Home of Johnny Cash” — was the property’s only distinguishing feature.
“Are you really going to knock?” I asked as Kristi pulled into the driveway.
“No,” she replied. “That just seems too …”
“Obsessive?” I suggested. “Stalkerish?”
She glared. “Invasive.”
We climbed out of the van, giggling at the absurdity of the situation. Here we were in Arkansas, staking out a dead man’s house. It reminded me of the time Kristi and I broke into an abandoned log cabin at Spangler Park. I was seven, utterly intrigued by this mysterious structure in the woods. My parents never let me explore it, but Kristi did. She was always my coconspirator, my partner in crime.
Shaking with laughter, I snapped a photo of her standing in front of the house. “Thank you,” I whispered.
That night, back in Memphis, we walked the length of Beale Street. Blues drifted from clubs, and the air was heavy with the smoky scent of barbecued ribs. We splurged and took a ride through the city in a horse-drawn carriage. It was just about perfect.
The next morning we gathered our belongings and prepared for the ride back to Hendersonville, where we’d stay overnight before heading to Ohio.
The nearest Piggly Wiggly was on Elvis Presley Boulevard, a few blocks away from Graceland. We bought bananas. “The Piggly Wiggly was the country’s first self-serving grocery store,” I told Kristi as we waited in the checkout line.
“Is that why we had to come here?” she asked.
“No,” I replied. “I just really like the name.”
Neither of us had any interest in visiting Graceland, but as long as we were in the neighborhood, we figured we should at least walk past it. We didn’t see much. A woman wearing a glittery Elvis Presley shirt and bejeweled sunglasses walked past us. “I think Elvis fans are even weirder than Johnny Cash ones,” I said.
Kristi nodded. “Hey, do you mind if we stop at the cemetery when we get back to Hendersonville?”
My jaw dropped. “You want to go back?”
She blushed. “Well, I wasn’t wearing a Johnny Cash T-shirt the first time we went.”
The sun was beginning to set when we pulled into Hendersonville Memory Gardens. I followed Kristi back to the Cash plot and waited while she stood at the grave, her hands jammed in her pockets. I turned away to give her some privacy, and when I looked back, she was scribbling something on the back of a business card.
“Are you leaving him a note?” I asked.
She laughed. “Shut up. And don’t judge me.”
“Oh, it’s way too late for that,” I said.
As we walked back to the van, grasshoppers leaped across the wilted lawn, their chirping overriding the hum of traffic on Route 31.
“Why Johnny Cash?” I finally asked. “What is it about this guy…”
She shrugged. “Back when I was a kid, I used to watch his TV show every week. And my dad listened to him.”
Kristi didn’t talk about her childhood. I knew only that her parents divorced when she was four, and although she adored her father, she saw him rarely. He died when she was 18.
The pilgrimage remained unconventional, but made more sense now. The journey wasn’t really about tracking down Johnny Cash the musician, celebrating Johnny Cash the icon, or ruminating about Johnny Cash, the Man in Black. It was about using Johnny Cash as a connection, a way for Kristi to acknowledge that she “still missed someone.”
“I’m glad I came with you,” I said.
She smiled. “Me, too.”
The 43rd annual Country Music Association Awards air on Wednesday, November 11, on WCVB-TV, Channel 5, at 8 p.m.
Vicky Waltz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Comments