Exclusive: Things To Know About Bill Miller’s Preservation Of Music History

The Johnny Cash Museum founder Bill Miller recalls the 2013 opening of the museum in downtown Nashville as “the biggest burden of my life.”

“I did three campaign elections, but was never as nervous or pensive as I was when media walked through those doors,” said the ex-California politician, personal friend and avid collector of Cash’s memorabilia.

He needn’t have worried. Just months after The Johnny Cash Museum opened its doors at 119 3rd Ave. S. in downtown Nashville, the museum was honored by the Tennessee Association of Museums Conference and earned AAA’s Gem rating, which recognizes attractions of exceptional interest.

Stemming from much of his personal collection, Miller spearheaded the museum’s creation after becoming tired of Cash’s gravesite as the only place to direct friends and tourists to remember the Man In Black’s legacy.

The museum details Cash’s journey from rural Arkansas, chronicling his multi-layered career, as Cash added roles as singer, songwriter, entertainer, author, poet, actor, and television host. The museum follows his career resurgence after teaming with producer Rick Rubin for the American Recordings series that ran from 1994 until Cash’s death in 2003 at the age of 71.

In 2016, Miller expanded his Nashville footprint by opening the bar Nudie’s Honky Tonk, located at 409 Broadway, inspired by the famous tailor Nudie Cohn. Miller’s next museum venture, centered on the life of country icon Patsy Cline, is set to open above the Cash exhibit soon.

MusicRow spoke with Miller about his business entities as part of a discussion featured in the 2017 MusicRow Country Radio print edition. To read the full article, pick up a copy of the print magazine at musicrow.com.

Here, a bonus collection of “things to know” about Miller’s journey, paying homage to Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, and Nudie Cohn.

Johnny Cash Museum

1. At age 22, Miller was elected to the city council in Corona, California, in 1982. At age 24, Miller was named mayor of Corona, California, making him the youngest mayor in California’s history at the time. He would serve his constituents until he retired from politics in 1993 after 12 years in an elective office.

2. In the 1980s, inspired by a visit to New York City’s Hard Rock Café, Miller launched what would become one of the largest dealers of autographs and historical memorabilia in the world. His company, Odyssey Group, once sold an original Frankenstein poster for a record-setting $198,000. Miller’s lifelong collection captured items including a letter from George Washington, and Madonna’s stage-worn bustier—as well as a vast array of Johnny Cash memorabilia Miller had been accumulating since the age of nine, after he met Cash backstage during a concert.

3. In 2003, The Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, located in Yorba Linda, California, used artifacts from Miller’s collection to open the first non-Nixon related exhibit in the museum’s history, in honor of Cash’s 70th birthday. The exhibit ran for six months. “I warned them it wasn’t cataloged,” Miller says. “Items were in my office, my warehouse, under beds. It was the first time I ever saw anyone put on white cotton gloves to start handling the stuff.”

4. Miller keeps Cash’s viewpoint at the center of everything he does at The Johnny Cash Museum. “We tried to do it in the way Cash did it. He was never in your face. People say, ‘Oh he was so political and into all these social causes.’ He was, but it was never in your face. He spoke those messages through his music. You didn’t see him get on a talk show and start criticizing the state of the country. He would present it in a way that people would go, ‘Yeah, that’s his opinion and I agree or disagree,’ but never, ‘I’m going to burn his effing records because of what he had to say.’ I think that’s what attracted me to him. He was one of the kindest compassionate people I ever met. I never heard him say a judgmental word about anyone.”

5. Nudie’s Honky Tonk, located at 409 Broadway in Nashville, is decorated with an array of Nudie’s signature suits, though the most eye-catching element is likely Cohn’s $400,000 personal “Nudiemobile,” the 1975 Cadillac El Dorado that is suspended above the live music stage. “We’ve got more than $150,000 in steel just for that car,” Miller says. “There is a steel frame that expands the entire wall and goes into the basement, which is anchored with more steel. I joke with people that if there were ever an earthquake in Nashville, all that would be standing in Nashville would be this crazy Cadillac.”

Photo: Zach Harrison

6. Patsy Cline maintained regular mail correspondence with a group of ladies via her fan club. “We are talking weekly letters going back and forth—very detailed, multiple pages. One in particular was with Annie Armstrong. Her daughters kept every letter from Patsy. But [Cline’s husband] Charlie and [Cline’s daughter] Julie had the letters from Annie in the other direction. You had letters you could match up, one responding to the other. Just the detail in these letters, and the fact that Patsy was the type of person who would maintain these letters. She never had anyone write the letters for her.”

7. Shortly before her death, Patsy Cline contacted Nudie Cohn to create dresses based on the Cline’s own hand-crafted designs. Miller had Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors create the dresses from Cline’s sketches, which will stand as the last thing guests will see when they visit the museum. “This was a big step, because her mother made nearly all of her clothing, or she would buy things off the rack and embellish them,” says Miller. “He had responded, agreeing to make the dresses, but two weeks later, she was dead…[so] after 53 years, these dress designs have come to life.”

8. A collector’s habits never stop. Though Miller says he has collected enough Cash memorabilia to fill two museums, his lifelong hobby continues. “I still buy Cash stuff even though I have way more than I could ever use,” Miller says.

To read MusicRow‘s full article, pick up a copy of the print magazine at musicrow.com.

*The John R Cash Revocable Trust has always held the preservation of the Cash legacy as a priority and continues to lead numerous cultural initiatives. The Trust is proud to have longstanding representation in the Country Music Hall of Fame, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Songwriter’s Hall of Fame, incredible history with Sony and Universal Music companies, among so many other reputable institutions and artists. The Johnny Cash Museum operates under agreement with the Trust and exhibits a number of noteworthy pieces made possible by Cash and Carter family members.

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About the Author

Jessica Nicholson serves as the Managing Editor for MusicRow magazine. Her previous music journalism experience includes work with Country Weekly magazine and Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) magazine. She holds a BBA degree in Music Business and Marketing from Belmont University. She welcomes your feedback at [email protected]

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