While Johnny Cash got his start as a rockabilly artist in Memphis, he’d go on to make the bigger waves in Nashville. Here’s how you can experience Nashville in the footsteps of one of country music’s greatest icons.
Johnny Cash’s Nashville
“The Man in Black” had a certain air of mystery to him. That’s what makes The Johnny Cash Museum so fascinating. Comprising historic artifacts, costumes, awards, and rare photographs donated by Cash’s friends and family members, the museum is filled with Easter eggs that paint an intimate portrait of his life. Even the most seasoned Cash fans walk away with a new fact in their back pockets. For instance, did you know that the name we know him by wasn’t the name he was born with? Or that Snoop Dogg once recorded a version of “I Walk the Line”? Learn for yourself at this can’t-miss attraction in downtown Nashville.
Many of Cash’s greatest hits were recorded at Columbia Studio A, but the story of how one song came about is sealed in country music legend. In 1969, Kris Kristofferson was a janitor at the studio who swept floors but had dreams of becoming a songwriter. Spending his days watching Cash record from afar, Kristofferson befriended Cash’s wife, June Carter Cash, regularly slipping her demo tapes in the hopes she’d pass them along to her husband. Kristofferson grew impatient and decided on a bigger gesture: He used the skills he learned as a helicopter pilot for the Army Reserve to land a chopper on Cash’s lawn and personally deliver a taped recording of a song he penned, “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” That certainly caught Cash’s attention, who performed the song on The Johnny Cash Show the following week. When Cash recorded it, the single climbed to No. 1 on the charts. Columbia Studio A has since been converted into an educational recording space for Belmont University students, but you can still see it for yourself on one of many group tours of Music Row’s various studios.
Country fans quickly took to Cash when he made his Opry debut in 1956. That night held personal significance for him, too: He met future wife June Carter backstage and was instantly smitten. Cash became an Opry member soon after, but extensive touring made it difficult for him to uphold the performance quota established by the show. He would appear occasionally as a guest artist until one infamous night in 1965 when he smashed out the footlights of Ryman Auditorium’s stage while under the influence of amphetamines. Opry management told him, “We can’t use you on the show anymore, John.” Despite the controversy, he chose to tape and host The Johnny Cash Show at the Ryman, which featured musical guests like Bob Dylan, Mahalia Jackson, and Stevie Wonder. When Cash passed away in 2003, a memorial tribute took place at the venue. Cash's impact still resonates at the Ryman, where there is a themed dressing room and display in his honor.
Around Hendersonville, no one is held in higher regard than Cash — even Main Street is alternatively dubbed “Johnny Cash Parkway.” The legend once called this small city on the outskirts of Nashville his home. Vestiges of the humble life he led off stage remain here.
It's easy to see why Center Point Barbecue was one of Johnny and June’s favorite restaurants — this Hendersonville institution serves up hefty slices of darn-good chess pie and Americana. Best known for its smoked ham and cornbread patties, Center Point has been the stomping ground for many of Nashville’s big names, from Brooks & Dunn to Taylor Swift, and the autographed photos on the wall prove it.
After exploring other parts of town, if you wish to pay your respects to country music's most iconic couple, their gravesite is accessible to the public at the peaceful Hendersonville Memory Gardens. Visitors will often leave guitar picks and other mementos at the site as an offering to two icons who changed the face of music forever.
A little over 40 miles southwest of Nashville, Cash’s former beloved personal escape sits in Bon Aqua. The farm and general store that he once owned have recently been restored and transformed into the Storytellers Museum & Hideaway Farm. The museum features live performances in the same vein of those once held by the Cash family in the space. It also boasts Cash's famed Cadillac that was immortalized in the song “One Piece at a Time.” At the farmhouse, you’ll be able to enjoy other treasures and keepsakes from the farm, the family’s Hendersonville home, and their vacation property in Jamaica. A retreat where would Cash would spend time reading, writing, and tending the garden, the farm makes for a fun pit stop just off Interstate 40 if you’re heading west to visit Memphis, where Cash’s career began.