(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
I was reading a new collection of stories the other day by the motorcycle columnist Peter Egan when I ran across a paragraph that I especially loved.
In a story about his motorcycle pilgrimage to Mississippi in search of the supposed gravesite of the elusive blues legend Robert Johnson, Egan visited many other blues landmarks. At Mississippi John Hurt’s grave near Avalon, he paused to reflect about how sad it was that any homage to the blues becomes a visit to gravesites. “A bit macabre, perhaps,” he wrote, “but then I suppose culture is mostly a matter of honoring the dead. In every generation there are only a few people who do really great work, and if you don’t keep their memories alive, you have no history and no standards to lean on or learn from.” Well said. The book, by the way, is Leanings 2 (Cycle World Books).
Fortunately, to a great extent country music has honored its dead, apart from not voting certain very deserving individuals into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
And it’s not just the gravesites that preserve our musical culture and heritage. Bill Monroe’s famous Gibson F-5 mandolin and Mother Maybelle Carter’s Gibson L-5 guitar are on view at the Hall of Fame instead of in some private collector’s home, thanks to the generosity of music devotee Bob McLean. Lyric Street Records has now funded the position of instrument curator at the Hall of Fame. As curator, respected artist and musician Bill Lloyd will care for that mandolin and guitar and the other treasured instruments there.
Then there are musical landmarks. And there are scant few of them in Nashville. There’s the Ryman Auditorium, which was saved from the wrecking ball at the last minute. There’s the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. A downtown statue of Chet Atkins. A music Row statue of Owen Bradley. Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge and some other downtown honky-tonks. And that’s about the extent of it.
Two years after the deaths of Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, there was a very real danger that the Cash house and estate in Hendersonville, outside Nashville, would be demolished and that those 4.6 acres would end up as a subdivision. In just the past few years, that area surrounding Caudill Road has already become overbuilt, it seems to me, and it would have been a tragedy to see the gorgeous Cash compound turned into rows of McMansions or even condos. It’s a beautiful, peaceful place with a majestic view of Old Hickory Lake. The landmark video, “Hurt,” was filmed in Cash’s favorite spot, the Lake Room with its high vantage point overlooking the lake.
Unconventional Nashville builder Braxton Dixon was constructing that house for himself in 1968 when Cash first spied it. Caudill Road then was a lovely and lonely lake road skirting Old Hickory Lake. Dixon ended up building other unusual houses along Caudill Road, including two that Roy Orbison lived in — one of which is now occupied by Marty Stuart and wife Connie Smith. Cash happened upon this house with its sweeping expanse and distinctive round rooms at a low emotional point in his life and bought it on impulse. As depicted in the movie Walk the Line, Cash and his new bride June Carter moved in soon afterwards and lived many meaningful years there. Presidents and all manner of famous people and great artists have visited the house over the years, and much great music came from there. That house was a true musical crossroads, where you might encounter President Jimmy Carter or Bono or Bob Dylan or Emmylou Harris or Elvis Costello or Earl Scruggs or evangelist Billy Graham or Cash sons-in-law Rodney Crowell, Nick Lowe and Marty Stuart. Out there on the lawn is where the young and wild aspiring songwriter Kris Kristofferson landed his helicopter one day to pitch Cash a song — and ultimately succeeded with “Sunday Morning Coming Down.”
Now Bee Gee Barry Gibb has bought the place and said he plans to restore it. Good for Gibb for preserving the Cash legacy through saving this unique house, which fairly well hums with music. I have known Gibb slightly over the years and found him to be a good and decent man with a keen appreciation for the better things in life. That’s something Nashville and country music can always use more of.