NASHVILLE SKYLINE: House Fire Is a Death in Country Music’s Family

What Would be a Fitting Tribute to Johnny Cash?

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

The loss of Johnny Cash’s house is an odd thing to absorb. It was just a house, after all, wasn’t it?

Well, no, it wasn’t. It had become a lively salon with evenings spent in the company of presidents, movie stars, music stars, aspiring songwriters and just plain friends. It was a crucible of warm musical memories. It was one of the most significant lodestone sites in country music mythology. To be in that house was to absorb the warmth of the music and memories. The few times I was there, I always felt happy and loved and appreciated.

After it was apparent the house was completely destroyed this week by fire, I pulled out Rosanne Cash’s Black Cadillac CD, to listen to two songs in particular. The first is the lovely and bittersweet “House on the Lake,” which concludes thusly: Blue bare room, the wood and nails/There’s nothing left to take/But love and years are not for sale/In our old house on the lake/In our old house on the lake/In our old house.

A co-worker had reminded me of some haunting lines in the song “Like a Wave,” which opens with these words: My memory is filling with smoke/It’s such a relief not to know/And except for the body and soul/There’s nothing here I want to own.. And those words now seem prescient.

The house had become a virtual shrine. There were tourists out there every day, but it never took on the atmosphere of Graceland. The visitors were respectful. It was a homing site for country music fans and country music stars alike. To the point that aspiring country music songwriter Kris Kristofferson once landed his helicopter on Cash’s lawn to hand him a song demo for “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” I’m sure you saw the house in the movie, Walk the Line, and in Cash’s music video for “Hurt.” The house was a central character in both and clearly possessed a character of its own.

Losing the Cash house was like losing an old, valued friend. And it reminded me that we almost lost the Ryman Auditorium due to the cupidity of a clueless corporation. Hank Williams’ old house that had been moved to Music Row was demolished under cover of darkness, as was the old Country Music Hall of Fame just down the street. There are precious few country music landmarks left in Music City.

And there are scant physical tributes to country music in Nashville, apart from the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. There’s the Chet Atkins statue downtown and the Owen Bradley statue on Music Row — which is unfortunately dwarfed by the nearby cluster of grotesque, cavorting nude statues in the middle of the Music Row roundabout.

So, what now would be a suitable tribute to Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash? I have no idea what Barry Gibb, its current owner, will now do with the land. Since he had been restoring the house to preserve the Cashes’ legacy, that is now impossible. I think it would be very fitting if the land were to be turned into a Cash memorial garden or park, with statues of Johnny and June. Johnny did, after all, buy the nearby site of his friend Roy Orbison’s house that had burned to the ground and he converted that into gardens. Since Roy’s two young sons died in that fire, Johnny wanted the land devoted to an appropriate use. What could be better for the Cash house site?

And another thing I think would be very appropriate is for the city of Nashville to consider renaming its airport the Johnny Cash Nashville International Airport. New Orleans fittingly renamed its airport the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport to honor the jazz pioneer and the city’s musical heritage. And Orange County, California, has the John Wayne Airport. Washington, D.C., has its Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. New York City of course has JFK. Nashville should properly honor the legacy of one of its most treasured citizens.