Cashing In on a Country Icon
By Dr. Anton Anderssen
September 9 marks a full decade since losing country music icon Johnny Cash; and memorabilia is flying off the presses. The United States Post Office issued a Johnny Cash 1st class stamp this year, hagiographies about the sinner turned preacher are eternally popular, an unauthorized film called My Father and The Man in Black opens in theatres September 6, and there’s a new shrine to JC in downtown Nashville called The Johnny Cash Museum.
We visited Nashville to explore the life and times of the infamous bass singer. We already knew a little about him and June Carter by exploring their son’s tell-all tome Anchored in Love. Apparently this family was enthusiastic about illicit drugs: June, Johnny, their kids, their friends – they loved to party. Johnny also had a delinquent side when he caroused with the boys; they liked to trash hotel rooms with a chainsaw which Johnny cached in his car trunk, they flushed cherry bombs down hotel toilets and blew the plumbing out, then set 500 chicks loose amidst hotel floors. He once knifed a painting at a hotel that was not to his liking. Who knew Cash was a self-appointed art critic?
Cash was suspended from the Grande Ole Opry for showing up high one night, smashing 60 footlights, sending shards of glass all over the audience during a live radio broadcast. He “celebrated” the night by crashing June Carter’s Cadillac into an electrical pole. (At the time, he was married to his first wife.) Cash had his fair share of women, and apparently was quite the lover; the 6’2” cocky crooner stood out in a crowd when wearing his size 13 cowboy boots. June had her share of men too – and she met all her husbands at the Grand Ole Opry.
Saul Holiff was Cash’s manager from 1960 to 1973; he hired June and put her with Johnny. Although he enjoyed the most robust years of Cash’s cash, he claimed Johnny robbed him of his soul. An atheist Canadian Jew, Holiff was irked by Cash’s attempt to convert him into a southern Baptist, according to the new film “My Father, and The Man In Black,” opening September 6. I watched the journalists’ advance copy of the film, and found it riveting. One part of the documentary revealed how airhead June Carter asked a most incredibly ignorant question to the atheist Jew – Why aren’t you interested in Jesus? Or are you working for us just for the money? Apparently, Carter had become so self-absorbed she thought people should consider it a privilege to toil as their slaves. Eventually, Holiff just gave up life and committed suicide.
Johnny and June weren’t the brightest apples in the bushel basket. He set Los Padres National Wildlife Refuge on fire during one of his drug binges – he enjoyed the wilderness, where he admittedly poached deer during the illegal season. His substance abuse included up to 100 pills a day and a case of beer. After being arrested for trespassing in Starkville, Mississippi, Cash broke his toe trying to kick out the bars of his jail cell. He was also arrested for public drunkenness in Nevada, Tennessee and California. He was caught smuggling drugs into the country from Mexico. No wonder he wore black; I’m sure it was more flattering than an orange jumpsuit.
Reese Witherspoon played June Carter in the film “Walk The Line,” which earned her an Academy Award, Golden Globe, BAFTA and Screen Actors Guild Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role. Apparently, she’s not so bright either, if her behavior during last year’s arrest for disorderly conduct is any indication of her IQ. The police report states Witherspoon asked the trooper, “Do you know my name?” and added, “You’re about to find out who I am.” Yes, dear, you’re the drunk who got an award for portraying a drunk.
“Walk the line” is an expression that means not straying beyond a defined boundary, and in particular, behavioral boundaries. For Johnny, it referenced his promise to June to give up illicit drug use forever (giggle, giggle). Not that I’m cynical, it’s just that it seems woefully naïve. I don’t drink alcohol, I’ve never been drunk, never been high, never had any interest in smoking anything whatsoever. But from my understanding, drug addiction is a complicated affair – you don’t just say “I’ll give it up” and expect good intentions to solve the problem. For Cash, the problems were deeply rooted, going back to his childhood when he watched his dad shoot the family dog, watched his older brother die after getting sawed in half by a wood-cutting blade, and becoming addicted to nicotine at age 12. Cash’s life was so awful it could have been scripted by Tennessee Williams.
Perhaps calamity is the catalyst for creative genius. He did write some amazing songs, including Don’t Take Your Guns to Town, I Walk The Line, and Folsom Prison Blues. When push comes to shove, it’s the songs that win the people’s hearts when they hear them on the radio, not necessarily the name of the singer. Great songs spreading over the airwaves is what ignited the success of country music, and it started with one little radio show, The Grand Ole Opry.
We visited the iconic Ryman Auditorium, one of the famed venues for the Opry; our exploration included the back stage tour, which includes rich history about the country stars who graced its stages: Tammy Wynette, Hank Williams, Katharine Hepburn, Dolly Parton and a chorus of others. Elvis was there once, too, during his early days while he was still a truck driver. One of the snobs running the show told him to keep his day job because he would never become a successful singer. Elvis held a grudge against The Opry for the rest of his life and refused to ever perform for them again. One of the best souvenirs you can get from the Ryman is taking your place on its historic stage and striking a campy pose with guitars while a professional photographer captures the moment…this opportunity was one we just couldn’t turn down.
We also attended one of the live Grand Ole Opry radio performances held at the Opryland complex; each show features a handful of artists each presenting three of their favorite songs. We saw Diamond Rio, Montgomery Gentry, Jim Ed Brown and Easton Corbin, among other greats during the two-hour show, which was opened by a recent version of Minnie Pearl, a character created by Sarah Cannon. The beauty of this show is in its variety – they offer a buffet of entertainment, so patrons are certain to find something they can enjoy at each performance. The Opryland complex includes an upscale outlet mall and a showboat called The General Jackson. We skipped the showboat after reading some really horrible reviews about it on TripAdvisor, such as “The water tasted like it came out of the Cumberland [River] and the waiter was even worse; The “food” that was served was so bad that most people didn’t eat it. It tasted old and freezer burnt; The entertainer went on a rant about Jesus…and how great George Bush was.” We highly recommend the Grand Ole Opry radio show – it can be streamed over the internet, heard on android apps, and tuned in on SiriusXM.
On the same night the Opry was playing, Alan Jackson was playing at Nashville’s Station Inn club, one of the many downtown venues where country music plays all day long. The audience was listening to the radio broadcast, enjoying Jackson during the commercial breaks (which were many). He was in town promoting his new blue grass album, while his wild child, Alexandra Jane Jackson, 20, was getting wasted and enjoying a speedball ride in a luxury Range Rover. This led to inconvenient criminal charges against her for underage consumption, punching a police officer in the chest, and resisting arrest.
Meanwhile, back at our hotel, the Millennium Maxwell House, six (according to the hotel driver named Mack) patrol cars holding a parade of armed police showed up and rushed to an upper floor. I asked one of the desk employees what was going on; she lied and said, “Nothing, the police enjoy hanging out here and visiting us.” A gang of cops then went to the front desk and appeared to ask for a certain room key. I asked that employee what was going on. He said, “I don’t have no idea. The only one who knows is [pointing to an employee named Charles W.] that man there.”
The Millennium is situated on Rosa Parks Avenue, in a colorful ghetto, where I saw people kind of just stagger around waiting for sobriety to happen. The Maxwell House has some terrible ratings on TripAdvisor and people have talked about it being in a bad neighborhood. When six police cars showed up, I immediately thought “Is this place a crack house?” and “Was there a murder?” After they hauled a man out of the hotel in handcuffs I asked Charles W. what was going on. Like the staff on the Costa Concordia, he denied there was any problem. I guess I could posit the police were simply pulling an illegal “search and seize” shenanigan; on the other hand, there was the very credible possibility that a crime against the public had just taken place. I told Charles I am a travel journalist, and I was there specifically to write about the hotel – if a crime took place I wanted to know what it was. He gave me one of those looks that a fired police officer who now works as a mall cop gives to customers, and said again, “It’s nothing.”
Where I live, a gang of cops descending on a place (other than a donut shop) is never “nothing.” I told Charles as far as I know, there could have been a murder that took place. I asked him, “Am I supposed to report that a murder MIGHT have taken place at the Maxwell House?” He gave me a smug look (so often reported by past guests of the Millennium) and said “If that’s how you gather your information, go ahead!”
I gather information like anyone else – I ask questions; I just don’t expect to run into ani like this prize employee. I know that a room was burglarized at the Maxwell House last year, and the perp was recorded on video. I know that Kenneth Hubbard and Holly Henning were arrested in a serious drug sting at the Maxwell House last year. I know that violent crimes in Nashville are 181% higher than the national average, and last year’s infamous Nashville crime was the cold-blooded beheading of Erman Thompson. Yet, I never saw anybody even remotely dressed or positioned as security at the hotel. There is a podium outside where someone supposedly helps guests arriving with bags, but it was abandoned during our entire stay. One could easily drive up to the lobby door and get mugged, and no one would be around to help you. Except for Charles, who might watch apathetically and yawn, “It’s nothing.”
Communication with the hotel was spotty. We sent faxes trying to communicate with their PR person; we wanted to know if the current Maxwell House is associated with the historic Maxwell House in any way. We wondered, because there is an exhibit about the historic hotel in the dining room hall. The historic Maxwell House has at least two claims to fame: a coffee company named itself after the hotel, and the Maxwell House was the conference site of the first national meeting of the Ku Klux Klan.
Due to some really screwy airline delays, we arrived at the hotel at an obscene hour and were dead tired. We set a wake-up call with Lana at the front desk. They failed to call us, and we wound up oversleeping, missing our scheduled arrival time at the new Johnny Cash Museum.
So we showed up at the museum an hour and twenty minutes late. Johnny’s brother, Tommy Cash had been waiting for us to show up, but assumed we had bailed on him, so he left the museum and went shopping with his wife. We presented our press credentials to the cashier and were allowed into the exhibit.
Fortunately, we met an employee who helped assemble the exhibits; Chuck Bauman knew the history of each item like the back of his hand. One of the walls was constructed from stones culled from the nearby Johnny Cash estate; Bauman was there as each piece was carefully laid into the moving truck. “They’re delicate stones,” said Bauman, “made brittle during the fire that destroyed the estate.”
In April of 2007, the cedar and glass home overlooking a tranquil lake caught fire after sparks ignited the linseed oil and turpentine-soaked structure. Construction workers refurbishing the mansion after Johnny and June died apparently had never considered non-flammable treatments. Linseed oil was meant to give the wood inside the home a beautiful glow. Well, it worked. The structure fell in to a burning ring of fire. It went down, down, down and the flames went higher.
The museum opened this summer, until then, Bauman kept objects in his garage until the building was ready for the curators. Surprisingly, one of the objects sitting out on a buffet is a Remington bronze statue. When we attended the Remington bronze exhibit in Fort Worth this summer, every piece was locked down under glass, and an armed guard stood over the sculptures ready to shoot anyone trying to snatch one.
Encased in a glass showcase were Johnny’s guitars, clothing, his camera, and tons of memorabilia. There were zillions of gold records on hand, enough to form an entire wall. We loved hearing comments from visitors, who revered the chambers as if they were visiting Jesus’ tomb. Everyone we talked to in Nashville considered Cash the undisputed icon of country music, and put him on a lofty pedestal. I asked Bauman what Johnny Cash was like in real life, wondering if he would mention any of the bad boy’s behaviors. Not a fat chance – Bauman described a total saint with almost super-human characteristics.
“When Johnny Cash entered the room, everyone knew it,” said Bauman, “he had a magical charisma unlike anyone else. And he was generous beyond belief: once, a total stranger came up to his house, and Johnny invited him in. On the same day, Johnny bought that man a $5,000 car.”
Bauman scouted the museum for any fingerprints visitors may have left on the glass cases, and quickly cleaned them. It was obvious he adored Johnny Cash, and venerated anything the singer had ever touched.
We found Bauman to be typical of local gentry who gave Cash their unconditional love and admiration. For these people, any flaws could be easily forgiven.
In many ways, they are right. Cash never set out to hurt anyone. He didn’t steal other people’s money, he earned his every penny. He supported his kids unlike so many deadbeat dads. There are sins of weakness, then there are sins of evil; Cash’s sins were from weakness – unable to say no to pleasure. Another reason anyone can like him is his authenticity. He once said he was “a sinner, saved by the Lord’s grace.” He visited convicts in prison, where most famous people would never even consider it. He really wanted to perform and entertain people – he wanted to make others happy. Although he destroyed himself in the process, I believe he achieved his goal of bringing happiness to those around him. For this, we can remember him fondly.
For information on the new Johnny Cash Museum, kindly visit http://johnnycashmuseum.com/ .
Friend writer Anton Anderssen at https://www.facebook.com/teddybears .