Southern Sounds

Openings: The Johnny Cash Museum

By Jed PortmanMay 31, 2013

Since the days of "Hey, Porter," his first hit song, Johnny Cash has entertained generations of country music fans. Now, with the opening of Nashville’s Johnny Cash Museum, those fans have a place to pay tribute to the Man in Black. The hundreds of items in the museum, which range from a young Cash’s Future Farmers of America card to the handwritten lyrics for the last song that he ever wrote, come almost entirely from one man: museum founder Bill Miller, who has spent most of his life collecting Johnny Cash memorabilia. We caught up with Miller to ask him a few questions about his career as a collector, his friendship with Cash, and the long-awaited museum opening.

When did you start collecting Johnny Cash memorabilia?

I started collecting when I was nine years old, when I first discovered Johnny Cash. Back then it was records, magazines, posters—things a kid could get. And it just continued. As I grew older, I really developed an admiration for Cash. I went to my first concert when I was twelve and snuck backstage. I did that a few more times before his people decided that I seemed harmless and started giving me backstage passes. 

Eventually, we got to be friends. He was a collector too, and a history buff. I had a business selling historical memorabilia. So he’d be interested in a letter from Abraham Lincoln, or something signed by James Garfield, and I’d be interested in a handwritten manuscript from Johnny Cash. We’d trade. My collection expanded to thousands of items over the years. We edited it down to hundreds for the museum. I still have the rest at home.

How did you get the idea to start a museum?

I looked at my collection and realized that what I had was a really important archive. It chronicles Johnny Cash’s whole life. I thought it should be somewhere where the public could enjoy it. So several years ago, we embarked on this long, wandering journey to find a place for the museum. We looked in Memphis, but that wasn’t quite right, so we came to Nashville. The location we have now, right between the Ryman Auditorium and the Country Music Hall of Fame, really couldn’t be any better. 

Are there particular stories or memories from your time with Johnny Cash that are on your mind now?

Johnny Cash was the kind of man who would always take time for his fans. He was always concerned with how his fans were being treated, and that they were getting their money’s worth if they were paying to go to a show or to buy an album. If somebody took the time to approach him on the street, he believed that he was obligated to stop and talk. He was always grateful.

You know, there is one story in particular that I love because it speaks so much to the kind of guy that Cash was. I came to Hendersonville for his funeral, and while I was standing in my hotel, dressed up in my suit, a maintenance guy came over and asked if I was going to Mr. Cash’s funeral. I said yes, that I was, and he asked if he could tell me a story. He told me that he’d worked at a car wash down the street. He’d been a drug addict and lost his job and that’s where he’d ended up. All the country stars would go there to have their cars detailed. They’d drop their cars outside and then go hang out in the lounge until their cars were ready. But he said that Mr. Cash would stand outside with the workers each and every time, and talk with them about their lives and their families. I see this museum as a way to repay Johnny Cash for all the lessons that he taught—both the direct lessons and the indirect lessons that come just from observing the way he lived his life.

How do you think he’d feel about the museum?

You know, the first time I exhibited any of this publicly was actually at the Nixon Library, in Yorba Linda, California. I had a lot of Cash’s old things, but the people at the library wanted to display some of his more recent awards. He had all of his awards at the time, so I asked him if we could borrow any of them for the exhibit. I didn’t hear anything back, and then one day this big box showed up at my office. I opened it, and there were the National Medal for the Arts and his Kennedy Center award, with a note saying that I could keep them as long as I wanted to. He was very interested in that exhibit, and I think that he’d be interested today. And honored. That’s the kind of guy he was.

I know that you’ve worked closely with the Cash family, and that you’ve walked some of Johnny Cash’s relatives through the museum. How have they reacted to the collection?

Every single one of them laughs and cries as they walk through. His sister Joanna has been through four or five times now, and every time she sees something different. She says that being there makes her feel like he’s back with us. His brother Tommy, too. The tears flow. Tears of happiness, tears of reminiscence. Tears of pain. His life had its ups and downs, but he was always triumphant.

Is there any one thing in the collection that you’re especially proud of?

Johnny Cash had a house in Hendersonville, Tennessee, that was kind of a mecca for his fans. They’d go there and hope that he might come out. Barry Gibb bought it after Cash passed, and then it burned down. The House of Cash [a family-run museum] was sold. So the only landmarks left in a town that Johnny Cash branded, really, were the gravesites of him and his wife. There was no Graceland for Johnny Cash fans. 

When we started working on the museum, I called Barry Gibb. I said, “Don’t think I’m crazy, but I’d like to go into the ruins, excavate a wall, and rebuild it in our museum.” He agreed. So today, we have the stone wall that was in Cash’s lakeside room, which is where he recorded the video for “Hurt” and where he used to hold his guitar pulls with people like Bob Dylan and Kris Kristofferson. We’re very grateful to Barry Gibb for that.

Tags: Goings-On