Each artifact in the new Johnny Cash Museum in Nashville — the 12th grade report card, the pair of tin cups from Folsom Prison, the tux he wore to the White House, the console on which he recorded his last song — has a tale to tell.
And nearly all of the 1,000 items on display come from the private collection of Bill Miller, who assembled it over the years as both a collector and a friend to Johnny Cash.
“I wanted to share with people the man I came to know over a 40-year period, taking into account the good, the bad and the ugly,” said Miller. “It’s not just about hanging a bunch of cool artifacts on the walls and in cases, but letting people get a sense of who he was through the artifacts. When we tell something about his career in the museum, there’s an artifact or a picture or a document right there that really says, ‘This is a true story.’”
And what a story it is. From Cash’s boyhood as one of seven children picking cotton on the family farm in Dyess, Ark., to his success as one of the world’s most beloved entertainers, the 6,500-square-foot museum gives visitors a revealing glimpse into Cash’s life through his instruments, costumes, awards, songs, documents and letters. Notes hand-written by Cash identify many of the items, and banks of iPads offer up a touch-screen choice of audio and video clips of performances from the 1950s through the 2000s. There are plans eventually to expand, adding space for special exhibits.
The museum also tells another story, one about the dedication and love of the man who collected them all.
Miller, 53, grew up in Eagle Mountain, Calif., a town so small and isolated it didn’t receive radio reception. His first encounter with Cash’s music was in 1969 when he was 9. It was a life-altering experience.
“A little girl brought the album ‘Live at Folsom Prison’ to class for show and tell,” he said. “When the album opens up, Johnny Cash introduces himself. I’d just never heard anything like it.”
Although the teacher ripped the tone arm from the record the moment Cash used profanity later in the recording, that famous introduction — “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash” —and the music that followed was the start of a lifelong obsession. Miller, a collector by nature, soon got his own copy of “Live at Folsom Prison” and started buying magazines, posters, records and any other Cash memorabilia he could get his hands on.
Miller attended his first Cash concert in Denver when he was 12. As the concert began to wind down, Miller left his cheap seats in the nosebleed section and made his way to the stage for a closer look.
“I made my way spiraling down the arena, and by the time I got to the stage he was finishing the song ‘Orange Blossom Special,’” Miller recalled. “I had my cheap camera with me, and when I raised it to take his picture, he looked at me and handed me his harmonica. You can imagine. My very first encounter with Johnny Cash, and he gives me a stage-used harmonica. Needless to say, I was hooked.”
Miller began following Cash’s performances with such regularity that the Cash organization eventually realized he was harmless and started letting him backstage.
“I literally grew up around him,” Miller says, “I probably saw him about as much as his family members did because he was always out on the road. He was my hero, but he also became a very close friend and eventually the godfather to my child.”
The two men shared their fascination with history and for collecting American memorabilia. They would often exchange gifts: Miller might come across an auction item such as a book signed by Helen Keller or a hand-written legal brief by Abraham Lincoln, which he would give to Cash. Cash would reciprocate by passing on a beloved Guild guitar or some other personal artifact. Through his independent collecting and through his gifts from Cash, Miller assembled one of the largest Johnny Cash collections in the world, much of it now on display at the museum.
Miller says he often wondered why Cash singled him out from the millions of fans for such interest and generosity. “I never really had the answer,” he said. “But now when I walk into that museum, it all comes into focus. The museum is the reason. I didn’t know it 20 years ago or 10 years ago or even three years ago, but I was the guy that was going to hold onto this stuff and put this together and ultimately pay tribute to my friend.”
Visitors may not notice any trace of Miller in the museum, but there’s a chance Miller will see see them. Miller still lives in California, but when visits the museum he said he likes to hang out quietly by the exit.
“I want to see people’s reaction as they leave,” he said. “I’ve encountered more than my fair share of people who come out in tears. If visitors walk out of the museum thinking, ‘What a great man,’ then I know the museum will have served its purpose.”
The Johnny Cash Museum. 11 a.m.-7 p.m. daily. $10-14. 119 3rd Ave. South, Nashville. 615-256-1777