Last month, the Johnny Cash Museum in downtown Nashville celebrated its second year of operation. According to founder Bill Miller, it has been an absolute blur.
“Time has flown in the past two years. I was scared to death. I didn’t know if people were going to like it, because I had never done a museum before.”
Needless to say, the people have spoken. “We’ve had 200,000 people come through the doors in 2014,” he told Billboard, admitting that the fascination around the Man in Black is as strong as ever. “We provide the conduit, but it’s Johnny Cash who brings them here. It’s nothing we do rather than get the word out and host his artifacts.”
Just like with the varying styles of his music, Miller said the clientele of the museum runs across many demographics. “I frequently talk with people in the museum — seniors, hipsters, parents with children — and invariably, everyone has a Johnny Cash story,” he said, also taking pride in the fact that he has met many a youngster with the first or middle name of Cash.
In a career that ran the gamut from Sam Phillips and Sun Records to Rick Rubin’s American Recordings sessions, what does Miller attribute Cash’s never-ending appeal to? “There’s such an authenticity to the music. There were never any blatant gimmicks, a few missteps along the way, but who didn’t have those? There’s something about his music that appeals to young children where they get immersed in the music.”
One of Miller’s favorite sections of the museum is the movie room, which showcases some of Cash’s film roles, where fans can watch his progression as an actor. “To me, that’s so interesting, because his first feature film was 1961’s Five Minutes to Live, and he was so bad that he once said, ‘It’s the worst thing I have ever done.’ I heard through the grapevine that he tried to buy all the copies of it that were ever made.”
As the 1960s became the 1970s, the singer became more comfortable in front of the camera, with a well-received 1974 guest spot on Columbo, as well as the 1980s tele-films The Pride of Jesse Hallam and Murder in Coweta County, with Cash holding his own against the formidable Andy Griffith. “I think he enjoyed it, but I don’t think he would have ever abandoned music for it. It’s interesting to see people’s reaction, because I think most of the people who come here have no idea about his acting — good or bad.”
Last year, Miller unveiled a new exhibit at the museum that takes a deeper look at Cash’s Sun roots — along with many of his famous labelmates at the Memphis label, such as Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and Elvis Presley.
“We were open for a year. I get bored very easily. I knew that we had opened a really good permanent exhibit, but I had heard from so many people who enjoyed it the second time around. I began to think, ‘If they are coming back, let’s give them something else.’ So we took what was developed as event space and transformed it to a temporary exhibit space. I thought what better than to go back to the very beginning of his career, and expanding on that? I also wanted to bring people in who had a role in that. They performed together, and it had true history. It was a movement that defined his career and gave birth to Elvis Presley, so it was historically important. I think it gives people a look at where and how the movement started.”
That exhibit will run through early 2016, and Miller said there are plans for more. “We’re looking at a room that will be interactive. Touch screens are cool and all that, but they can get gratuitous. We want to do something where people can interact, and one of those things is taking his every known concert date — from the time someone began tracking it. We are always getting people who say, ‘Ethel and I were wondering. We saw him in Des Moines in the ’60s. I say it was 1966. She says it was 1964,’ and we can look that up. We will have an interactive map, and there will be the dates and venues of when he performed. I just acquired the recorder that he used to cut the last American Recordings sessions he did here in Nashville. We are actually looking at letting people record a Johnny Cash song on that deck and then take it with them.”
As the legend of Johnny Cash continues to grow with each passing year, Miller feels the future is bright. “Fortunately, with such a long and varied career, we will never run out of things to explore. I just want to keep it fresh. We could rest on our laurels and do the same thing over and over where people come back two or three times. I’m not trying to copy Walt Disney when he said that Disneyland will never be finished, but I always want to keep it new and fresh beyond what is set in stone, and of course, keep telling the story.”