(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
The massive auction of Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash’s stuff at Sotheby’s in New York City is unprecedented in country music, in terms of scope and star power.
This is really not a new thing for country music. Little museums and gift shops have long been intertwined with careers. (Johnny Cash’s House of Cash, Ferlin Husky’s Wings of a Dove museum and shop, Twitty City for Conway Twitty and Dollywood for Dolly Parton are just a few.)
In November of 1974, Hank Williams’ first wife, Audrey Williams, put a hand-lettered sign out in her Nashville front yard that read “Garage Sale. Tour Buses Welcome. Souvenirs.” She charged $2 admission to the garage sale. She was broke, but she still had some Hank totems to peddle. “I was married to a legend,” Audrey said. “What else am I gonna do?”
In 1990, the great Dottie West declared bankruptcy, had her Nashville mansion foreclosed on and saw her possessions sold at public auction. Possessions and even the song publishing of Jim Reeves and Faron Young were bought by Smyrna, Tenn.-based carnival operator Ed Gregory, who regularly held auctions until his recent death.
At Wynonna Judd’s big sale at her country place near Nashville a few years ago, by the time I got there all that I could see were a lot of boxes of false eyelashes, exercise and motivational tapes and dozens and dozens of pairs of shoes.
Elvis Presley’s legacy has turned into a regenerating, eternal garage sale with all manner of new related merchandise — as opposed to actual totems. The most recent crop of products is a new vintage of Elvis wines being introduced this fall: Presley Pinot (Noir), The King Cabernet (Sauvignon), Jailhouse Red (Merlot) and Blue Suede Chardonnay. An Elvis museum and gift shop in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., that displayed such items as the King’s X-rays, hair dryer and garment bag was one of the more depressing establishments I’ve ever visited.
In addition to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, a few serious collectors (such as Marty Stuart) are preserving many of country music’s more valuable artifacts for posterity.
One recent example is Maybelle Carter’s guitar, which is rightly considered one of the most sacred instruments in country music history. Her 1928 Gibson L-5 instrument was up for sale for almost $600,000 when Tennessee businessman Robert McLean did the right thing by buying it and donating it to the Hall of Fame. In making the presentation, he deplored the increasing collecting frenzy with rich trophy hunters chasing items to keep for private display. The Hard Rock Café factor — so named because of the restaurant chain’s precedent-setting buy-ups of music memorabilia — is not going away anytime soon.
The Cash-Carter auction, though, is pretty amazing, in and of itself. The Sotheby’s catalog for the auction is a beautiful book — a 320-page coffee table sized glossy paperbound volume. Of the 769 items up for bid, things range from June Carter Cash’s 1987 Rolls Royce Silver Spur ($50,000-$60,000 minimum bid) to Johnny’s familiar knee-high black alligator boots ($2,000-$3,000) to clothing to furniture to awards to handwritten song lyrics and cancelled personal checks to Johnny’s Tennessee driver’s license.
The last time I looked at eBay, there were 1,958 Johnny Cash items on display — but very few of them could be classified as even vaguely personal icons, most of those being autographed items. (There were 181 items for June Carter Cash.) The notion of obtaining a personal totem, one handled by the star’s own hands, is the goal of these ultimate collectors.
By dramatic comparison, eBay showed 8,575 listings for Elvis Presley items. There were few actual physical totems. They ranged from “an actual jacket that belonged to Elvis Presley” (current bid about $1,100) to an “Elvis Presley auto insurance application dated 1956” (with a starting bid of $2.99).
Nothing is too arcane of a totem for the true collector. I mean, there are numerous listings on eBay for Britney Spears’ used chewing gum and even worse celebrity objects. Go figure.
But, hey, an actual Johnny Cash guitar? One that he used to play? That’s the real thing. But for the real iconic objects — like Mother Maybelle’s guitar — it’s nice to know that they belong to the public, to the greater good of the arts and arts education. As they should.