Johnny Cash. J.R. The Man In Black. He’s sold more than 90 million records around the globe and remains an American icon, even all these years after his passing. His face and his voice are unmistakable. In 2017, Rolling Stone named him the #3 greatest country artist of all time, beat out only by Hank Williams and Merle Haggard.
He can be found on record, in film and on the big screen- but he can be found in real life, too. Across the American South, from a small Arkansas colony to Nashville, Tennessee, these are the Southern landmarks that every Johnny Cash fan should visit.
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Johnny Cash Boyhood Home, Dyess, Arkansas
Although Cash was actually born in Kingsland, Arkansas on February 26, 1932, he grew up in Dyess, Arkansas, a New Deal Era cooperative community that was really a social experiment for poor farmers during the Great Depression.
Cash’s father applied for one of the family plots at the new community of Dyess, and moved the family there in 1935. They were assigned house number 226 on Road 3. This is the house that Cash, known then as J. R., would remember of his childhood.
Up until recent years, the original Dyess Colony was mostly a memory – one that was rarely remembered other than for its most famous son. In August of 2014, however, Cash’s boyhood home, fully restored and furnished, was opened to the public as a heritage tourism site.
Several other historic Dyess Colony buildings have been restored and opened to the public as well, focused not only on the early life of Cash, but also the agriculture and cultural history of the colony and of the Great Depression that shaped him and his music.
The Johnny Cash Boyhood Home tours begin at 110 Center Drive, Dyess, Arkansas 72330. For more information, visit the website.
Playlist: “Pickin’ Time” and “Five Feet High and Rising” are both thought to be written about and inspired by Cash’s childhood in Dyess.
Sun Studio, Memphis, Tennessee
Philips told them to come back with something original, something that wasn’t gospel, and the eventual result was “Hey Porter.” The rest, of course, is history. Sun Studio was the launch point for Cash’s epic career, and his sessions with Philips resulted in some of the most quintessential American recordings of all time.
Dedicated to Cash and his contemporaries, including Cash’s famous “Million Dollar Quartet” co-members Elvis, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis, Sun Studio remains to this day an internationally acclaimed must-see stop on any history of American music tour. On the tour, visitors stand in the actual studio that Cash auditioned and recorded in and hear the origin story of that iconic boom-chicka-boom sound.
Playlist: “Hey Porter” and “Folsom Prison Blues” were both recorded in early Sun Studio sessions in Memphis.
Johnny Cash Museum, Nashville, Tennessee
Cash made his Grand Ole Opry debut on July 7, 1956, thanks in part to the success of “I Walk the Line.” At the time, there was a staunch Memphis vs. Nashville, rock n’ roll vs. country rivalry. When Cash was invited to take the Ryman Auditorium stage (where the Opry was then held) it marked a crossover moment where rock n’ roll and country met and shook hands, making Cash one of the earliest crossover artists.
Today, the entire breadth of Cash’s career is commemorated and celebrated at the Johnny Cash Museum in downtown Nashville. Contained inside the museum is the single largest collection of Cash related memorabilia and artifacts in the world, and it was named the #1 music museum in the world by several notable publications including National Geographic traveler and Forbes.
The Johnny Cash Museum is located at 119 3rd Avenue South, Nashville, Tennessee 37201. It shares a space with the Patsy Cline Museum. For more information, visit their website. Book your Nashville Music Pass, which provides entry into the Johnny Cash Museum and many other music-related attractions.
Playlist: “Battle of Nashville” and “Tennessee” are two excellent deep cut tracks from Cash’s body of work about Music City USA and the Volunteer State.
The Wall of Cash, Nashville, Tennessee
There are uncountable artistic renderings of Cash around Nashville, throughout the South and well beyond. It would be nearly impossible to count and catalog them. One expansive mural in downtown Nashville, within walking distance of the Johnny Cash Museum, depicts many aspects and moments in Cash’s life, from his Sun Studio days to the Folsom Prison performance and many others in between.
This 12 foot tall, 150 foot long mural was painted in 2003 and updated in 2012 by a trio of visual artists called the Thoughts Manifested Crew. The Wall of Cash is located at 300 4th Avenue South, Nashville, Tennessee 37201.
Storytellers Museum and Hideaway Farm, Bon Aqua, Tennessee
Cash needed a place to unwind. The rigors of the road and international stardom took a toll. So he purchased a large farm and crossroads general store located about an hour west of Nashville, in a little town called Bon Aqua. He often took refuge in the Bon Aqua farm, which became, as he once said, “the center of my universe.”
And the general store eventually took on a life of its own, becoming a hot site for musicians local and famous to meet, play and socialize. The farm, home and store passed out of memory for many years, until a group of entrepreneurial-minded Cash enthusiasts purchased the properties with plans to restore the sites and reopen them to the public.
And this they did. Among the Storytellers Museum’s incredible collection of Cash artifacts and memorabilia is the infamous “One Piece At A Time” car. The song, recorded somewhat as an afterthought in 1976, became a number one hit on the country charts at a time when Cash’s albums were not selling particularly well.
The Storytellers Museum and Hideaway Farm is located at 9676 Old Highway 46, Bon Aqua, Tennessee 37025. For more information, visit the website.
Playlist: “Saturday Night in Hickman County” was written about the jam sessions held at the country store in Bon Aqua. The comedic “One Piece At A Time” must be included, as well.
Hendersonville Memory Gardens, Hendersonville, Tennessee
Johnny and June are buried together on a slight rise, in the Garden of Matthew toward the front of the Hendersonville Memory Gardens grounds. When June passed away on May 15, 2003, it seemed too much for Cash to bear.
Cash had been in and out of the hospital for quite some time as it was and the death of his beloved June strained his already failing health. Cash himself died on September 12, 2003, ostensibly of complications due to diabetes. To many of his fans, however, Cash surely passed away of a broken heart.
The Hendersonville Memory Gardens are located at 353 East Main Street, Hendersonville, Tennessee 37075.
Playlist: Cash’s American Recordings, recorded during the final years of his life, are often considered some of his finest work. A cover of the Nine Inch Nails song “Hurt” became the song that reintroduced Cash to the world, and to a whole new generation of fans.
About the Author: Andrew Kyle Saucier is a freelance writer and photographer and author of Ultimate Smoky Mountains: Discovering the Great National Park. He specializes in the music, culture and outdoor spaces of the American Southeast. He lives with his wife in nearby Chapel Hill, Tennessee. Follow him at @andrewkylesaucier.
All photos courtesy of the author.
Note: Biographical and historical information for this article is sourced from the 2013 biography Johnny Cash, the Life by Robert Hilburn.