A week ago, I found myself in Hendersonville, Tennessee standing over Johnny Cash’s grave. I noticed something as I was standing there… something that spoke to me as a man, a husband, and a father.
My 8-year old daughter, Ingrid, is the biggest Maybelle Carter fan in the United States, and for two years now we’ve been talking about making a trip to Nashville to see Mother Maybelle’s guitar. If you’re not a country music fan, let me tell you who Maybelle was and why she’s such a legend. Way back in the 30’s, the very first country record was cut by the original Carter Family (A.P., his wife Sara, and their sister-in-law, Maybelle). The Carter Family toured the country back in those days, and Maybelle brought along her daughters, Helen, June, and Anita. June Carter grew up and married Johnny Cash and they became the First Family of country music. Maybelle was famous for being one of the greatest guitar pickers in the world, and for her unique style of playing rhythm and lead at the same time. That style is known to this day as the Carter Scratch. I don’t know why Ingrid decided to latch onto Maybelle, but I find her almost every day listening to 80-year old Carter Family songs on the iPad.
We went to Music City to see Mother Maybelle’s guitar, which is enshrined at the Country Music Hall of Fame. It was great fun to have an 8-year old the size of Frodo Baggins dragging me by the hand through crowds of Randy Travis and Taylor Swift fans to see Maybelle’s old Gibson L-5. After the Hall of Fame, we drove out to Hendersonville to see Maybelle’s grave. She and her husband, Ezra, are buried in the same plot as Johnny Cash and June Carter, and since Johnny is my hero, it seemed appropriate that I should pay my respects to the Man in Black.
As we walked quietly through the cemetery, we passed a grave of Merle Kilgore, a songwriter whose biggest claim to fame was that he co-wrote Ring of Fire with June Carter. Kilgore’s grave was outlandish, with his grinning face and all his rings displayed prominently along with a list of everything he had accomplished in his career. Now, I’m a fan of his music, but no one could argue that Johnny Cash was a much bigger star than Merle Kilgore. But Cash’s grave wasn’t ostentatious at all. The stone was simple and black, and had only his name, dates, and a quote from the Psalms. If there was anyone in the world of country music that had something to brag about on his tomb, it was Johnny Cash, but he wasn’t a bragger. It says a lot about his character that he chose such a simple place to rest his head.
Here we are in an age when celebrities consume our thoughts day and night. We have a reality TV star that took part in a WrestleMania running from President of the United States. If Beyonce wears a new pair of jeans it’s trending news of Facebook. We’re obsessed with celebrity, and a bunch of other indie authors and I are trying our hardest to catch a little bit of fame so more people will read our books.
I’ll tell you the truth… I love standing up in front of a crowd and reading from one of my stories. I love signing autographs and talking with fans. But standing over Cash’s grave, thinking about what kind of man he was in the second half of his life, it put a lot of things into perspective for me. Johnny Cash was larger than life, but underneath the black clothes he was still little J.R. from Dias, Arkansas. He never forgot where he came from and that kept him humble. He was a Christian musician that went into prisons and ministered to the lowest people in our society. The Folsom concert was a sermon, but nobody knew it. It started with shooting a man in Reno to watch him die, and ended with a graystone chapel in the prison yard… a house of worship in a den of sin. Cash certainly had his faults, but he overcame them and put his life back together and tried to inspire people to do better. In a world of televangelists and reality TV and ponzi schemes and politicians, I don’t think there’s a better celebrity to model yourself after than Johnny Cash.
So, there’s my story. Cash was larger than life, but he stayed humble and that’s what made him truly great. As I stood over his grave, I thanked him for his songs and for showing me how to walk the line. Then Ingrid left a flower for Mother Maybelle and we headed back home. I don’t have a lot of money, and Ingrid doesn’t have a lot of toys, but I’ll bet she remembers this trip for the rest of her life.