Johnny Cash‘s enduring legend is all things to all fans.
Many a gospel devotee has found comfort in his songs about crossing over. People dwelling on the margins identified when he sang as a man for whom life, death and justice hung in the balance. College kids at folk festivals dug the gravity of the murder ballads he performed, and to a generation raised on alternative rock, he became an icon for staring down life’s darker side.
Death was never Cash’s only theme, but it was a recurring one. And when the love of his life, June Carter Cash, passed away, he followed four months later, on Sept. 12, 2003.
Cash and Carter were laid to rest in Tennessee in the Hendersonville Memory Garden. It’s not far from where a generation of country stars — the two of them included — made their stately homes along the shores of Old Hickory Lake near Nashville.
On a recent visit, their side-by-side plots were easy to find, set off by a low wall and rows of flowers, lilacs, daisies and other perennials that had already bloomed for the season and shed their petals. Their markers bore their signatures and a couple of poetic verses from the Book of Psalms.
Beneath the graves, fans left an “I ‘Heart’ Oklahoma” keychain and a red jar whose candle had, by then, burned down to a waxy stump. We’d expected to come upon somebody paying respects that afternoon, but the bench engraved with “Carter-Cash” and Johnny and June’s respective signature songs “I Walk the Line” and “Wildwood Flower” was unoccupied.
Another empty bench a few yards to the right bore the name Merle Kilgore, the country singer, songwriter and Nashville mover and shaker. The bench identified him as the co-writer — with Carter — of the Cash classic “Ring of Fire.”
More of Kilgore’s resume was on display on the marker bearing his larger-than-life likeness and hands. Each finger flashed a ring, one depicting his own initials and another, the logo of Hank Williams Jr., whom he managed.
Most of the other graves flanking Cash and Carter’s belonged to kin. Her daughter, and his step-daughter, Rosie’s was closest. Below hers were two more members of the all-female family lineup with whom Carter first joined Cash’s road show — her sister Anita Carter and Mother Maybelle Carter, who devised the foundational “Carter scratch” guitar technique. Right next to Maybelle was her husband Ezra Carter.
Helen, the third singing daughter and sister to June and Anita, is buried in a different part of the cemetery. Like the rest of the Carter headstones, except June’s, Helen’s bore the image of an angel, which could be a nod to the old Carter Family standard “Angel Band.”
A little further down the path, we found the grave of Luther Perkins, the guitarist who helped forge Johnny Cash’s train-echoing boom-chicka-boom sound and was still playing in Cash’s Tennessee Three backing band when he tragically died in a house fire in 1968. At that point, Cash still had decades — and multiple moments of creative reinvention and cultural revival — to go in his career.
At the time of their passing 10 years ago, the deaths of Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash captured imaginations and inspired songs. Julie Miller, quite possibly Americana’s most empathetic songwriter, mourned June from Johnny’s perspective in “June”: “I never thought I’d lose you or that you’d go ahead of me.”
In a quiet tune of her own, Shelby Lynne reflected, “There’s not much love in a lonely room/Today’s the day that Johnny met June.”
And in a third tender tribute, singer-songwriter Kelley McRae opened with the romantic notion that with her gone, he’d died of a broken heart.
There’s no reason to believe fans will stop making the pilgrimage to Cash’s final resting place — on the anniversary of his death, his birthday or any other day that they feel so moved. But since he’s a global icon who transcends generations and pretty much every other demographic category, there’s no telling where those pilgrims will be coming from, how old they’ll be or why they have connected with the music of the Man in Black.