Johnny Cash, Hank Snow and Buck Owens returned to the stage of the Ryman Auditorium Wednesday (Sept. 20) — or at least it seemed as if they had — when larger-than-life bronze statues of all three were unveiled at the former home of the Grand Ole Opry.
Montana artist Bill Rains created the statues. Beginning today (Sept. 22), they will be part of “Nashville Legends on Parade,” an exhibition co-sponsored by the Ryman and the Tennessee Performing Arts Center (TPAC). Along with the three new statues, the exhibit includes three other works: a bronze of Hank Williams Sr. that has stood in the lobby of the Grand Ole Opry House since 1998; an Ernest Tubb statue stationed in the Ernest Tubb Record Store on Music Valley Drive since 1997; and a three-figured representation of Elvis, titled “Journey to Graceland,” originally unveiled at Graceland in 1986. “Nashville Legends on Parade” will be on display through Oct. 31.
“To be here tonight, unveiling these three statues on this historic stage is a dream come true for me,” Rains said during Wednesday’s unveiling ceremony. “Nashville, this is your history. These three legends will forever be remembered for their music. They will be remembered for their impact on American culture. These monuments will help keep their memory alive long after we’re all gone.”
Cash approved the preliminary drawing for the sculpture in his likeness but had not seen the finished product until Tuesday, the day before the unveiling, when the statues were on a flatbed trailer in the parking lot of a Nashville hotel. “We’d had people driving by all day and stopping to take a look,” Rains said in an interview. “We had whole tour buses stopping by. Then I saw this black car pull up and out stepped Mr. Cash himself!”
Cash was driving by with his daughter, Cindy, who exclaimed, “Dad, stop! That’s you!”
“He inspected it from the front, then the back and said it was the best likeness of himself that he’d ever seen,” Rains recalled.
“I knew that, to Johnny, God, family and music are the three most important things in his life, so I explained to him that the long coat and the kerchief represent all the cowboy songs and the Western movies that he’s made. I told him the guitar on his back is the way he comes on stage — he’ll throw his guitar up and say ‘Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.’ So, that represents his music. The Bible in his left hand represents God and family.”
Seeing the statue was an emotional experience for Cash, Rains said. “He had tears in his eyes and he shook my hand and hugged me and said he couldn’t wait to tell June.”
Cash did not attend the unveiling ceremony. Merle Kilgore, who co-wrote “Ring of Fire” with June Carter Cash and served as best man at their wedding, unveiled the statue. “This is the greatest,” he said, upon seeing the statue. “Johnny has such a commanding presence. Whether he’s fishing or whatever, he’s commanding. He’ll walk into a room and everybody will just turn around and look. That aspect of his personality has really been captured in this statue.”
Jimmie and Dottie Snow, Hank Snow’s son and daughter-in-law, unveiled the statue of Snow. The Snow bronze was begun last year, before the Singing Ranger’s death. Although he did not live to see the finished work, he did see preliminary drawings and knew, before he passed away, that he was being immortalized in bronze.
Jo McFadden, whose late husband, Jack McFadden, managed Owens for over 30 years, unveiled the Buck Owens bronze. “This was a great honor, but it’s also a little sad,” she said. “I would have liked my husband to have been here. I felt like I’m taking something away, yet I feel very honored and glad to have been here for him.”
The Owens statue is a replica of one Owens himself commissioned in 1995 for his Crystal Palace Theater in Bakersfield, Calif.
Rains’ vision — to capture the heritage of country music through bronze statues — was inspired by western artists Charles M. Russell and Frederick Remington. “They captured the West, and I always thought it would be nice if someday an artist could capture our country music heritage,” he said.
“If our planet still exists in 50,000 years, these statues will still be here. It’s been said that bronze is a medium that introduces one civilization to the next. The next civilization will be introduced to the Man in Black, the Father of the Bakersfield Sound and the Singing Ranger.
“I’ve dreamed, for many, many years of a sculpture garden, right here in Music City,” he continued, “where my bronze statues would preserve the legacy of country music’s legends for future generations.
The sculpture garden in Nashville remains a dream, but Rains has started work on a “Street of Gold” sculpture garden for Shreveport, La., which will pay tribute to the stars of the Louisiana Hayride, the live country radio show that aired from 1948 until the early 1980s. Maggie Lewis Warwick, president of the Louisiana Hayride Company, says the “Street of Gold” project is part of a $350 million revitalization plan to preserve Shreveport’s historic music district.
Rains has been commissioned to produce 25 statues for the “Street of Gold” project. Cash, who often performed on the Louisiana Hayride during the early days of his career, is the first of its artists to be memorialized in bronze. Kitty Wells will be the next. Rains anticipates completing the rest of the statues in four years.
The premiere of “Nashville Legends on Parade” is part of Fest de Ville Nashville, a three-day arts festival continuing through Sunday. The Presley statue will be inside the TPAC lobby; Williams will be stationed in the Ryman. Cash, Owens, Snow and Tubb will be displayed outdoors, along Fifth Avenue. After October, the statues will be moved to the Grand Ole Opry complex for a year-long display, as part of the Opry’s 75th anniversary celebration.