Hendersonville firefighters work on putting out a hot spot at the former home of Johnny Cash on Caudill Drive in Hendersonville during a fire that destroyed the home on Tuesday. (SHELLEY MAYS / THE TENNESSEAN)
Smoldering fire prevents firefighter access
By PETER COOPER & JENNIFER BROOKS
HENDERSONVILLE - The longtime home of Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash was still smoldering this morning, preventing firefighters from gaining access to the ruined house.
Cars streamed by the Caudill Drive property on Old Hickory Lake, pausing as passengers leaned out the windows to snap photographs with their cell phones.
Joanne Cash, Johnny Cash’s sister, said none of the family’s memorabilia remained in the house, which was sold two years ago to singer Barry Gibbs and was under renovation.
She asked people to pray for the children who are upset by the loss, her brother Tommy and herself.
“This house held precious memories, nothing can take away those precious memories. It housed a family but it also housed precious memories,” Joanne Cash said.
“We are going to keep singing we are going to keep on going. We are going to leave all the questions people have about what happened to God.”
A family spokesperson said a flood of well-wishers, by email and phone, have offered to place flowers at the site as a memorial to its place in music history.
House revered by stars and fans now just ashes
That's what June Carter liked to call the Hendersonville home she shared with her husband, Johnny Cash.
"She thought of it as her and dad's private kingdom," wrote the couple's son, John Carter Cash, in his Anchored In Love: The Life and Legacy of June Carter Cash, a book slated for June release.
The Cashes' Camelot is in ruins, the victim of a Tuesday afternoon fire that destroyed the more than 13,000-square-foot property. Its new owner, Barry Gibb of Bee Gees fame, bought the house for $2.5 million in early 2006, and he and wife Linda were renovating it for use as a summer home.
Built in the late 1960s, the home had 18 rooms, including a signature round living room and a bedroom that overlooked Old Hickory Lake. It was important for reasons that had nothing to do with size, architecture and design. Like the Cashes' Virginia home — the one that used to belong to June's mother, legendary guitarist Maybelle Carter — this was a house of music.
Cash wrote here, of course. He placed acoustic guitars in most rooms, so that he could pluck out chords and melodies as inspiration struck. In the 1970s, he and June often opened the house for guitar pulls that included luminaries such as Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson and Mickey Newbury. They'd also often invite up-and-coming writers that Cash respected and encouraged, including Vince Matthews and Larry Gatlin.
When the house wasn't open to visitors, it was seemingly impenetrable. As an aspiring songwriter, a down-and-out Kristofferson wanted to hand a tape of his music to the by-then-legendary Cash, but he figured he wouldn't be able to get past guards. He landed a helicopter in the yard, and Cash ended up recording "Sunday Morning Coming Down" and other Kristofferson songs.
House was a sanctuary
June Carter Cash also worked on her music at the house, and she played a private concert on the grounds to celebrate the release of her Press On album in 1999.
For the most part, Johnny and June did not record at the home, though beginning in the late 1990s they recorded many tracks at Cash's small cabin studio located across the street and down a winding, unpaved road.
Johnny Cash recorded some vocal tracks in the house, after June died in 2003. He was grief-stricken, and in such poor health that it was difficult for him to make it to the cabin studio. Sessions were arranged in his round bedroom.
"It was a sanctuary and a fortress for him," singer Marty Stuart said of the house. Stuart lives next door to the Cash estate in Hendersonville, and he was married to Johnny Cash's daughter, Cindy, in the 1980s. "So many prominent things and prominent people in American history took place in that house," Stuart said, name-checking Dylan and evangelist Billy Graham as two of the most notable.
When Cash first bought the house, he used it as a place of healing. His body ravaged by drug abuse, he retreated to that round bedroom to rid his system of toxic substances. He and June were not yet married, but she and her parents were a near-constant presence.
"June and her mother and father formed a circle of faith around me caring for me and insulating me from the outside world, particularly the people, some of them close friends, who'd been doing drugs with me," Cash wrote in Cash: The Autobiography.
Home reflected June
After Johnny and June married in 1968, June — a shopper and a collector of art and furniture — lavishly furnished the interior. The result could be seen in the video for Cash's 2002 release "Hurt," some of which was filmed in the house.
"I found photos of the lake house from late 1967, before dad and mom married," wrote John Carter Cash, who was born in 1970. "They showed wide open rooms with very little furniture, and only a few scattered mementos. I have a few of those items still. … These things remind me of how my father changed to bring my mother into his life."
After June's death, Johnny Cash sought to remove many of the items his wife had
collected because the reminders saddened and depressed him.
After Cash's death in September 2003, it was left to relatives to sift through the belongings. Many of their paintings, clothes and musical instruments were sold at a Sotheby's auction in 2004. The family hung onto the home until 2006, when it was sold to the Gibbs. John Carter Cash kept the cabin studio, where he regularly records (including a tribute album to June Carter Cash that will be released in June).
Album detailed the loss
Johnny Cash's daughter, singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash, wrote about the painful process of parting with the home on her 2006 Black Cadillac album.
"There's nothing left to take," she sang in "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."
Barbara Orbison, a neighbor of the Cashes for many years and the widow of Roy Orbison, spent many days at the house on the lake.
"Every inch of the house was something June bought or put there," she said. "If you thought about Johnny and June, you thought about that house. That was their house. I guess it will forever be their house."
More Reactions to the Cash House Fire
• Oak Ridge Boys bass singer Richard Sterban was eating lunch in his restaurant Cheddar’s when his road manager called him on the phone to tell him “Johnny Cash’s house is burning to the ground.”
Sterban lives on the same road as the house; he moved in 20 years ago when it was all country music stars down street, including Roy Orbison. “Back then, it was just a nice quiet community, with a beautiful lake, somewhere they could get away from it all,” Sterban said.
He has memories of house: Johnny Cash took the Oak Ridge Boys under his wing. “He made us part of his show and paid us more than we were worth,” Sterban said.
Sterban shared this memory on Tuesday: The Oak RidgeBoys had just finished a gig, and Johnny Cash invited them back to his house and told them, “‘I can tell there’s something special about your group, but if you give up now no one else is going to know that. If you hang in there, good things are going to happen to you.”
When the group won its first CMA, Cash gave it to them.
“We’ve been there for parties, we have a lot of fond memories. They’re all going up in smoke,” Sterban said on Tuesday.
— Jennifer Brooks, Staff Writer
• “They both are saddened and devastated by the news. At this time, we don’t have any further comment,” said Paul Bloch, publicist for the house’s new owner, Barry Gibb of Bee Gees fame and his wife, Linda. They bought the house for $2.5 million in early 2006 and were renovating it for use as a summer home.
— Beverly Keel, Staff Writer
• Barbara Orbison, music executive and widow of music legend Roy Orbison who lived next door to Johnny and June Carter Cash, talked about the home after Tuesday’s fire.
“I feel really sad because it was like the house had been there forever. The first day when I got to Tennessee, when I was 17. Roy took me straight over to Johnny and June's to meet them. Part of my life for 20 years was very much in that house, whether it was baby showers or births or marriages or divorces or just having breakfast. It was always there. I am really saddened it went. In a way, it was so associated with Johnny and June that it never really felt right for me that anybody else should ever be in that house.”
Roy moved there in 1963 and she joined him 1968: “Johnny and June got married 1968, and we married in 1969. For the first years it was like a little neighborhood; it was sleepy.”
“I remember when Roy’s house burned (in 1968) — it was right next to it —Johnny and June came straight off the road to be with Roy. It is just strong sense of history there.
After Roy's house burned, he built another one right next to it, Barbara said. The Orbisons moved to Malibu in 1985 and Roy died in 1988. “That house and our house was part of my safety in life.”
About two months ago, Barbara spoke about the house with Reese Witherspoon, who won an Oscar for her portrayal of June in Walk the Line. “When she came down, that was before the house sold and June had a collection of this and that. It’s a sense of tragedy and a sense that it belonged to Johnny and June. It was Johnny and June. There was never a day that that house didn’t represent them. They lived there the whole time they were married.
“That house had a really strong scent of Johnny and June. It was built on rock. It had to be a strong house to have survived right there at the lake.
“If you thought about Johnny and June, you thought about that house. I guess it will be forever their house.”
— Beverly Keel, Staff Writer
• “I can't give you the words I felt when I was walking through my orchard and watched it go down. My heart melted alongside it for a minute,” singer Marty Stuart told The Associated Press about the house. Stuart lives next door to the Cash estate in Hendersonville, and he was married to Johnny Cash’s daughter, Cindy, in the 1980s.
• Johnny Cash’s sister Joanne Cash released the following statement after the fire on Tuesday: “Of course we are all in a state of shock. I feel that an era has passed. Just today in prayer, I had decided to move on, even discarding old newspaper clippings not realizing that this terrible thing would happen. My prayers are with the Cash family and especially the Gibb family during this time.”
• Andy Griffith Show actor George Lindsey remembers some wonderful times spent at the home of John and June Carter Cash:
“The atmosphere was something like you were living in one of his songs. One night it was Rev. Billy Graham, Buford Pusser, (Hee Haw producer) Sam Lovullo and June and John and Mother Maybelle. It was an interesting evening. When we talked about something, Dr. Graham would talk about it in reference to the Bible. It was terrific to be on that invitation list.
“It’s not the house of so and so on something street, it was the house of Cash.”
— Ken Beck, Staff Writer
Peter Cooper writes about music for The Tennessean. He can be reached at 259-8220, or by e-mail at email@example.com.