The final resting place of a music legend can exert a strong pull on diehard fans, general pop culture junkies and history buffs alike. Elvis Presley, for instance, has been gone for three and a-half decades, and for all that time, hoards of people have been making pilgrimages to his grave at Graceland, leaving tokens like flowers, teddy bears or — in Paul McCartney’s case recently — a guitar pick.
Nashville’s Woodlawn Memorial Park is where we went to find dozens of country music’s famous deceased. There was no Graceland-style guided tour to take, but, thankfully, there was a photocopied map of stars’ graves available. Otherwise, inside that vast, five-story, unearthly quiet mausoleum, we might’ve kept right on walking past the spot where Jerry Reed was interred, forgetting that the family name we should have been looking for on his stone was not in fact “Reed” but “Hubbard.”
Up on the third floor, the resting place of Tammy Wynette immediately stood out. There was much more attached to her stone than her real name, Virginia Richardson, and the dates of her birth and death. Between a pair of vases holding artificial flowers, fans had taped pencil-drawn portraits — one depicting her sporting a blown-out ‘do, headband and bright smile, and none half-bad — as well as birthday, Christmas and Easter cards. I guessed that a small collage of baby, prom and wedding photos tucked in the corner must have been put there by her relatives.
It struck me that whether Wynette’s visitors had known her publicly or privately in life, whether they identified with her because her down-to-earth heart songs cut to the emotional bone or they’d actually spent time with her as friend or family, they feel a personal connection with her that draws them to one and the same place to pay their respects.
Down a side hallway, the name of singer Van Stephenson was easy to spot, thanks to a publicity shot of his ‘90s band Blackhawk, his decade-old obituary from Country Weekly and scores of “miss you” notes. We turned to survey the wall of rectangular markers behind us and discovered that he has songwriter Liz Anderson for a neighbor. A few more steps down the main hall, we came upon the resting place of the pioneering husband-and-wife songwriting team Felice and Boudleaux Bryant. A quick glance down another sunlit corridor revealed the resting place of the recently-passed Gordon Stoker, leader of the Jordanaires, and we couldn’t help but notice the parents of comedian and actress Lily Tomlin interred close by.
Taking the elevator up to the fourth floor, we came across the name of Marijohn Wilkin, co-writer of the haunted ballad “Long Black Veil,” before visiting the sprawling green lawns outside. That’s where we found the joint headstone for Richard E. — whom the world knew as Eddy — and Sally K. Arnold. Only a small image of a guitar on his side of the burnished bronze headstone suggested the hit-making stature Eddy Arnold enjoyed in country and pop music. Another one that would be easy to miss if you didn’t know what you were looking for.
Across the driveway, beyond several neat rows of graves, Johnny Paycheck’s headstone sat all by its lonesome — a fitting location, I thought, for a guy most recognized for his Outlaw rep. What surprised me, after seeing other stars’ stage names left off their headstones, was that his was engraved only with the name known to his fans.
Also set off on its own was the still-fresh grave of George Jones, flanked by floral arrangements, angel-shaped LED lights and a Father’s Day memento from the grandkids. To drive home that this was a place his loved ones mean to share with fans of his down-home soul singing and his larger-than-life legend, his wife Nancy posted an artist rendering of the impressive monument she’s having built. It’ll be topped with that indelible, now so very literal, song title: “He Stopped Loving Her Today.”
Next, we moved to a different section of the cemetery, walking row after row in search of Porter Wagoner’s grave, and passing by that of the soul-pop singer Dobie Gray on the way. Eventually, we stopped at the dark bronze marker bearing Wagoner’s name, nickname (“Wagon Master”), signature and his most appropriate song lyric: “I’ve left this old world with a satisfied mind.”
I doubted I was the first to stand there thinking of “Porter Wagoner’s Grave,” the recitation Marty Stuart recorded a couple of albums back. Stuart spins a tale of the dark and stormy night a lost soul sleeping in the cemetery is awakened by a wise, spectral and strikingly attired stranger: “He wore a long purple coat, covered in wheels, and red leather boots with sparkling heels.”
Around the corner and up a gentle hill lay the sizable markers of Martin David Robinson — Marty Robbins to us — and Webb Pierce, each emblazoned with their signatures and references to some of their more beloved songs, Robbins’s “A Little Spot in Heaven” and “My Woman, My Woman, My Wife” and Pierce’s “Wondering.”
Beneath the latter, I read this inscription: “Webb’s first big hit, but no one in the world of music will ever be left wondering at the lasting, international impact Webb had on country music.”