After Cash's death, one fan-turned-friend became the champion of his legacy

One day some forty years ago, Johnny Cash and his entourage exited the back door of a theater in Denver, bound for their limo, when they encountered an obstacle. It was a kid, 13 years old and determined to meet the Man in Black.

The kid was nervous, acutely aware of the precise number of Denver police officers staring at him and considering whether to escort him off the premises. Could you get arrested for annoying your idol?

Time slowed down as the boy watched Cash approach the vehicle. The singer's strides lengthened surreally as anxiety reached its height.

Then it happened. Cash reached the kid, stopped, put his hand on the narrow shoulder. "Hey son. How you doing?"

* * *

That kid was Bill Miller, and in the years that followed his first, brief but entirely unforgettable meeting with Johnny Cash — young Miller was too starstruck to say a word in reply — he accomplished two incredible things.

First, he became one of Cash's dearest friends, and remained so until the legendary singer died 15 years ago this week.

Then, a decade after Cash's death, Miller and his wife Shannon opened the Johnny Cash Museum in Nashville, jumping into the museum world without a lick of experience.

The Johnny Cash Museum isn't the first venue ever founded to keep Cash's legacy alive. Long ago, the singer himself established the House of Cash in Hendersonville, Tennessee, to serve as his working office and studio as well as a museum. The working areas weren't open to the public, but artifacts of Cash's career were on display in the museum, and his own mother ran the gift shop. But Cash closed down the museum after his mother died, and when he himself died years later, there wasn't really any place for the public to visit to learn about his life and pay tribute to his career. Folks visited his nearby Hendersonville home — purchased by Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees after Cash's death — until it burned down in 2007.

"So, what that left you with was Johnny and June's gravesites," Miller recalls realizing, "and I thought, that's a hell of a thing to have for fans to see when they come to the town that Cash built."

That thought prompted Miller to set about resurrecting the spirit of the House of Cash in a new form. He's pulled it off. The Johnny Cash Musem opened five years ago now, and in that time, the museum has seen more than one million visitors and been ranked by Conde Nast Traveler among the best music museums anywhere.

* * *

Looking back now on his journey from fan to friend to guardian of Cash's legacy, Miller says, "I think [the Cashes] tolerated me, and then they began to like me, and then, as I got a little older, Johnny and I had a lot of things in common." 

That friendship is what led to the beginnings of the Johnny Cash Museum — because if Cash liked you, he was apt to give you gifts. For Miller, that began with a harmonica that Cash tossed to him from the stage when he was just a kid, front and center with his camera, hoping to get a shot of his musical hero.

As the two got to know each other over the years, Cash passed along more stuff to Miller — some guitars, some clothing — some of which is much rarer and more valuable than the harmonica. Still, that first personal present remains Miller's prized possession. It lives at his home rather than at the museum; some things you just have to keep to yourself.

In fact, the 9,000-square-foot space is packed with more artifacts than you might expect in a relatively small museum. In addition to gifts Cash gave Miller, it includes items on loan from other collectors, precious artifacts that Miller has tracked down and purchased over the years, and some of the trappings of a long life that Cash left behind when he died on Sept. 12, 2003.

The items on display in the museum range from the public to the deeply personal. Of course, some of Cash's gold and platinum records live there, forming a grid on a wall. One of them, Cash's first gold record that he earned for "I Walk the Line" in 1956, is a recent addition to the museum, bought by Miller after a long hunt for the treasure and now exhibited publicly for the first time.

There are photos all over — some that fans have been seen before, and many others that are revelations. Most fans know the famous "Million Dollar Quartet" photo from the day Cash recorded with Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins at the Sun Records studio, but most probably haven't seen the museum's signed version, with Cash's signature in black (he was the Man in Black, after all), Lewis' in red ("Great Balls of Fire"), and Perkins' in blue ("Blue Suede Shoes," which he wrote and performed before Presley — who had already died by the time the photo was signed — got hold of it).

A wall of outtakes from the "Carryin' On with Johnny Cash & June Carter" album cover shoot is full of photos never seen by the public. Some are real attempts at taking an album cover photo, while others show Cash and his second wife — just months before they were married — goofing around together, young and in love and having the time of their lives.

There are nods to the ways others interpreted Cash's life and work. A tribute to "Walk the Line," the 2005 biopic about Johnny and June, includes costumes worn by Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon as they portrayed the couple. The "Cash Covered" exhibit displays photos of some of the diverse artists who have performed their own versions of Cash's songs and gives you a chance to listen to some of them.

Records, guitars, recordings, outfits Cash and his band wore on stage — these form the backbone of the museum, but sprinkled among them are dozens of more personal pieces that tell us about who Cash was as a man, not just as a performer.

One fascinating standout is the two sheets of paper on which Cash and his first wife, Vivian Liberto, typed their last will and testament in 1959. It was Cash's first iteration of that document, typed on stationary with an "I Like Johnny Cash" letterhead.

While those pages are typed, Cash's handwriting is all over the museum. There are handwritten letters, signatures, lyrics. The words to "I Walk the Line" are neatly printed, an outline of his foot traced over them and the year 1956 noted at the bottom. The handwriting isn't all that different on a page containing a more somber verse written almost 50 years later — a poem Cash wrote for June when he got home from her funeral.

There's a handful of marbles Cash played with as a boy, his high school class picture, the dog tags he wore during his pre-fame military service, his family's piano.

There's also his King James Bible, a small and humble-looking book that was immensely meaningful to the man.

* * *

Cash was once a hard-living addict who put the "outlaw" in "outlaw country." He never served a prison term, but he was not unfamiliar with the inside of a jail cell. He crashed cars, smuggled uppers and downers to the U.S. from Mexico, and burned down 500 acres of a national forest.

That wasn't the Johnny Cash Bill Miller knew. The day Miller first stepped between Cash and his limo, the singer was already a few years down the road from the epiphany that brought him back to the Christianity he had practiced as a boy before straying from it as a man.

According to legend, Cash was strung out, sick and sad one day in 1967 or '68 when he drove his Jeep out into the countryside near his home in Hendersonville, Tennessee. He parked at random, stumbled out of the vehicle, and blundered into Nickajack Cave. He walked deep into the cave, then crawled, then fell down, lost and tired and ready to die.

As Cash lay on the ground of the cave, he felt a peaceful calm suddenly strike him. He felt surprisingly good. And as he told it, he knew this good feeling was provided by God, who wanted him to live. Cash got up, crawled and staggered his way toward a fresh breeze and then into the light that was the cave's entrance. And there at the entrance was June Carter, whom he dearly loved but hadn't yet convinced to marry him, with a basket of lunch.

Some men might have chosen to worship the lovely and nurturing June after such an encounter, rather than God, but Cash found his way to both. He got clean — the condition Carter was insisting upon before they could be wed — and the two married. And Cash became a religious man, a Bible scholar who sang the gospel even as he continued to perform songs like "Folsom Prison Blues," whose narrator "shot a man in Reno just to watch him die."

Cash himself never shot anyone, for any reason, but neither did he remain perfectly godly after his come-to-Jesus moment. He continued to falter, periodically falling back under the grip of drugs, getting newly clean, and falling again. But while he may sometimes have hurt himself and those who loved him when he messed up, Cash didn't alienate his fans. Instead, he gained their respect and understanding.

Miller knew of his friend's imperfections — and he loved him for them. "If he stumbled and fell," Miller recalls, "he didn't have the publicist issue some outrageous statement. He'd just say, 'Hey, I stumbled and fell again. You know, I'm human. And I hope, when I do stumble and fall, that it can help someone else avoid the same issue.' I think that's why he's still with us, and he's still relevant today. Because people look at that and they say, 'This is authenticity at its best, in every way.' The music, the human being, all of it."

* * *

That authenticity, that relatability, those were some of the things that Cash's loyal fans loved most about him. And he loved them right back. His connection with his fans was no marketing ploy. It was central to his identity as a musician, and it led to unlikely friendships like the one he formed with Miller, his much younger fan.

Cash's connection with his fans is evident all over the museum. Maybe nothing speaks to it quite as well as the letters to fan club members that are on display there.

One, typewritten, is friendly and chatty, seven paragraphs of insider info that had to have been thrilling to the club members that got it. Another, even more delightful, is the handwritten letter to Helen, an enthusiastic fan club member who had been drumming up support for the club. The 1958 letter recalls a meeting between the fan and the star, and it describes the shirt Cash sent her, one that he had worn on tour.

The singer who gave his fans the shirts off his back even manages to continue interacting with them today at the Johnny Cash Museum, 15 years after his death.

In one of the museum's exhibits, you can reimagine and remix a few of Cash's mid-career songs. Standing in front of a mixing board, you put on headphones and choose from four song options — "One Piece at a Time," "No Good Chain Gang," "She Used to Love Me," or "Ghost Riders in the Sky." You can then use the sliders on the mixing board to isolate individual instruments, listening just to Cash's vocal line or just the drums or just the guitar — or you can mix them just the way you want, emphasizing lead vocals or backup, bass or guitar, however it sounds best to you.

It's not quite the same as being in the studio with Cash and the Tennessee Three a few decades back, but it's an interesting way to experience an intimate moment with the dead musician's voice. Hearing an isolated vocal track can be cringe-worthy if the singer isn't talented enough to pull off a capella, but that's not an issue when the singer is Johnny Cash. Headphones on, the noise of the museum's other patrons fades away, and it's just you and the warm, rich voice of the Man in Black. You might come close to feeling like he's there with you, just out of sight.

If seeing Cash right there in the room with you is what you want, you can achieve it—virtually—with another of the museum's interactive features. You'll stand in front of a green screen and imagine yourself in two scenes. In one, you're standing with Cash right there in the museum against a backdrop of 45 RPM records. In another, you're backing him onstage, watching him sing while you "play" an acoustic guitar supplied by the attendant — who takes photos of you in both poses.

Twenty or so minutes later, you can come back to the green screen area and see your photos on a computer screen, but through the magic of digital photo editing, Cash himself has been inserted into them. If you did a good job of posing, you appear to be looking right at him as you stand closer than you probably ever got to the man while he lived. (If you're not so good at posing, you're gazing over his head or accidentally elbowing him.)

You can buy prints of the photos and get downloads too, if you like how they turned out. And even though you know they're not real, you still get to feel a little bit like you got to interact with Cash and got photographic proof. Of course, everybody knows it's not the same. The moment with the headphones and Cash's unmistakable voice feels realer and warmer — but you don't get to take that home and display it on your mantle like you do the photos.

* * *

Cash had lifelong fans whose enthusiasm dated back to his career's 1950s beginnings, but a fair few of them weren't still around as his life marched toward its end. Some of them had died, but that didn't account for all the attrition. The sad truth was that plenty of them had just stopped paying attention.

Not long after Bill Miller first met Cash outside that Denver auditorium, Cash's career began a freefall. The 1970s and '80s were not kind to him. But in the 1990s, Cash began a remarkable comeback that was really not like anything else the music world has ever seen.

Miller was there the night Rick Rubin — the legendary producer of musicians working in styles very, very different from Cash — showed up backstage at the Rhythm Café in Santa Ana, California to ask Cash to record with him. "I remember several of us going, 'Who is this guy?'" Miller says. "You know, his beard was this long, and he was wearing jeans and this long T-shirt. And he basically pitched Cash on just, you know, 'John, come in the studio and just do your thing with your guitar.'"

Cash took some convincing, but when he agreed to record with Rubin, he found himself blooming into an invigorating new phase of his career. First, the two men worked on Cash's old favorites, recording them in a spare environment with bare-bones instrumentation. Then Rubin convinced Cash to try putting his spin on some more recent songs — a track by gravel-voice troubadour Tom Waits, a hard-rocker by metal icons Danzig.

Rubin continued encouraging Cash to record these incongruous choices, bringing him material by Soundgarden, Beck, Tom Petty, Nine Inch Nails. Cash didn't try to sound hip or current as he sang their songs — he was an aging man with a voice full of gravitas, and he sang the words like he would his own compositions. The results were incredible, and the young fans who suddenly began flocking to Cash's shows were invigorating to the performer.

Miller attended some of Cash's concerts in this last leg of his career. "I could see the thrill and the glee in Johnny's eyes. He would always peek behind the curtain and look at the audience. And you could just see the joy in him when he was trying to make his way to the limo and [a fan] would say, 'Look, Mr. Cash, I have a Johnny Cash tattoo.' He was just in wonderment. You could see that there was a new countenance about him." Most singers in their 60s struggle to maintain record sales and concert attendance. Cash, having seen himself through a near-devastating slump, came back with a fervor.

Sure, Cash wasn't the first aging singer who tried to breathe new life into a fading career with covers of contemporary songs, nor was he the last. Some have done it well and made a bit of nice money while they were at it. But nobody has achieved quite what Cash managed to do in terms of creating a new, young, passionate audience by making those contemporary songs utterly his own. "Hurt" and "Rusty Cage" seemed like weird choices for Cash to cover until we all heard what he did to them, singing them with complete honesty and zero kitsch. And then we were transfixed, finding layers of depth we never knew the songs possessed.

And who ever would have guessed that Cash, at 71, would win a Grammy Award for best music video? Or that when Justin Timberlake beat Cash to best male video honors at the MTV Video Awards, the younger singer would declare that the award should have gone to Cash?

The video for "Hurt" is an extraordinary eulogy to Cash. Vintage video footage is interspersed with new, first looking back as a younger Cash visits his childhood home in Dyess, Arkansas, then exploring the House of Cash as it existed in 2003, with its "Closed to the Public" sign prominent and its exhibits shuttered and broken. A cocky young Cash plays a concert to adoring fans; the video cuts to the older Cash, less than a year from death, playing his guitar alone. "Everyone I know goes away in the end," he sings. The camera lingers on a photo of his mother, dead since 1991.

The folks at the Johnny Cash Museum point out that never in the museum is Cash's death mentioned. It's like he's still alive to interact with his fans, via exhibits like the mixing board. But there are few reminders of mortality as stark and unflinching as the "Hurt" video, and it closes out the museum tour.

Even if you've seen the video a dozen times and more, it's hard not to stand and watch as it plays out on the museum's flatscreen TV. And it's hard not to leave, then, with a solemn feeling, even though you probably weren't going through the museum thinking heavy thoughts about the fifteen years that have elapsed since the great musician's death — and the long and complicated life that came before those years.

Cash's regrets are on display in the "Hurt" video, though they don't much make it into the rest of the museum. We all know the life of Cash wasn't a squeaky clean one, and those who've read his autobiography, "Cash," know he had a tendency to hurt the ones he loved. But we don't honor a life by focusing on the bits the deceased would rather have forgotten, and the Cash museum's founders are well aware of that. It's a meticulously detailed celebration of Cash and all the good he brought to the world through his music, and that's just what it should be.

Bill Miller doesn't have many regrets about the course his own life has taken from young fan to museum founder, but one of them is the fact that Cash himself couldn't see the loving tribute to his life and career. "But I know he would love it," Miller clarifies. "I know that he would love every single thing about the way we did it."

But that's not really because of what Miller himself has done, he insists. The reason the Cash museum is so highly regarded is "not because I'm a brilliant museum guy. It's not because of all the marketing we do. It's because Johnny Cash. People love him. People relate to him. And I can't take credit for any of that. All I can take credit for is, you know, having a place for people to come. The rest of it's up to Johnny."


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