Even before it was further immortalized via several story points in the movie Walk the Line, the home that Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash shared their entire married life was the nation’s preeminent celebrity crib. The friends who took advantage of the couple’s hospitality there represented your veritable who’s who of American public life, from Bob Dylan to Billy Graham to Al Gore. But its significance might be symbolized not so much by the visitors who got inside the gates as those who didn’t: the fans who were driven to make a pilgrimage and just stand outside that fence during the 35 years Cash lived there, or in the four years since his death. The lakeside house in Hendersonville, Tennessee was a shrine of sorts to a performer who, maybe more than any other 20th century pop figure, represented both a kind of magisterial quality and down-to-earth warmth. It was also effectively a shrine to the idea, or ideal, that long-term marriage and true love need not be mutually exclusive. Try to imagine any house on a Hollywood map of the stars’ homes that could generate the same magnetic pull or similar depth of feeling; yea, verily, not even the Spelling estate could get quite that amount of love.
“It was as if a person had died, more than a house,” said one family confidante who’d watched the final stages of the home burning to the ground Tuesday afternoon — doomed, as it turned out, by the very measures that were being undertaken to preserve the place. When the Cash family put the home up for sale, there was talk of it being bought by someone who might want to gut it and build a more sprawling structure on that enviable lot on the water, but it was rescued by Bee Gee Barry Gibb, who purchased it for $2.6 million (a steal, it seemed at the time) and pledged to even keep whatever furnishings had been left behind intact. According to sources, some of that furniture, like Johnny and June’s bed, had just been removed during the current renovation and is safe and sound in storage. But the structure itself was gutted when a flammable wood preserver that’d been applied to the exterior of the house caught on fire. (Hendersonville is apparently not a great place to be a musician/homeowner without a really fantastic sprinkler system. Roy Orbison’s original house, right next door, burned down in 1965. Not too far away, Cash’s original guitarist, Luther Perkins, accidentally set his home on fire in the late ’60s and succumbed to his burn injuries shortly thereafter.) Firefighters said the unusual multi-level structure of the house made the blaze even tougher to tackle.
Contrary to what’s portrayed in Walk the Line, Cash did not literally stumble upon the newly constructed property during a hungover walkabout. But there’s enough mythology about the home that IS true, apparently, including the movie’s portrayal of the singer accidentally driving a tractor into the lake in a frustrated moment. It was, indeed, where he went through a major detox in the late ’60s (albeit not for the last time). Fledgling tunesmith Kris Kristofferson famously landed a helicopter on the lawn during the same era to pitch some songs to the star, resulting in the huge hit “Sunday Morning Comin’ Down.” Not much music was actually made inside its walls, though the “Hurt” video was largely filmed there, and Cash’s final sessions took place within its walls as well, when he was too weak to make it to a studio. Mostly, this unusual combination of stone, marble, and wood — an eccentric contemporary home constructed without a blueprint, according to brother Tommy Cash — was a place to entertain, and live and love. After most of the couple’s belongings were auctioned off a couple of years ago, daughter Rosanne Cash recorded a song called “House on the Lake”: “There’s nothing left to take/But love and years are not for sale/In our old house on the lake.”
I never got to go inside the house, though not for lack of trying.During the last year and a half of Cash’s life, I had severalinterviews set up, with the promise of a home-cooked meal from June;these were always canceled when health problems sent one partner or theother to the hospital. I finally “met” Cash at the visitation at thefuneral home, standing over his open coffin next to a tearfulKristofferson. I also watched the coffin being lowered into the groundat the cemetery, a point at which I half-expected some curtainsomewhere to be split in half a la a New Testament narrative. But asmoving as those moments were, I’m not sure they even match the fewhours I spent standing in front of the suddenly dormant Hendersonvillehome as fans came by to pay their respects the only place they knewhow. A surprising number of them were return visitors who’d been bybefore, years or even decades ago, and they had stories of how theywere able to say hello to their hero as he came and went. Admiring thefloral arrangements and handwritten messages folks were leaving alongthe fence, it felt sweet to gaze at that house, not so very far off thedrive, and recall a slightly gentler time when you might accost arevered celebrity in his driveway and not (a) get flipped off, or (b)not have to fight your way past a team of TMZ.com videographers toexchange a few pleasantries.
At moments like these, people do get mystical. One of the neighbors— an Oak Ridge Boy! — was quoted as supposing maybe nobody but JohnnyCash was ever meant to live in that house. I heard someone joke thatmaybe his ghost just didn’t want to have to listen to “Stayin’ Alive”echo through the hallways; I’ve also heard people suggest moreseriously that maybe he committed arson from the other side.Preposterous, of course — if only because one imagines Johnny Cashfinally succumbing to his better angels in the great beyond. On theother hand, he did once accidentally ignite a major forest fire and wassuccessfully sued by the forest service to the tune of a couple hundredthousand dollars. And although he was not without ego in life, it seemsentirely possible that he would be resistant to having his home go onas a lasting shrine or mecca after he was gone… Oh, let’s stop. I stillremember Rosanne’s shattering words from the 2003 funeral, where sheput non-family members’ sense of loss into perspective by saying, “Ican almost live in a world without ‘Johnny Cash’… I cannot, however,begin to imagine a world without ‘Daddy.’” For my part, as a fan, Istill have a hard time accepting that world without Johnny Cash, and itsucks just the slightest bit more knowing there’s now a Nashvillewithout Johnny Cash’s house.