Couples often find certain things will remind them of their special love. To some, it may be a song; to others it may be a certain time. To Johnny Cash and June Carter, one of their special connections is an entire building. And its name is Ryman Auditorium.
Most people know of the many times Johnny and June performed together and individually on the Ryman stage. But, few people know the role this building played in their relationship. Oh, if these walls could talk.
IT STARTED IN HIGH SCHOOL
Although they officially met backstage at the Ryman in 1956, the story begins a little further back. Johnny was part of the Dyess Colony School Senior Class Trip in the early 50s that went to the Ryman. That’s where Johnny saw June perform. It would be nice to say “and the rest is history,” but it was not a straight line in their story. Johnny’s intention that night was to get June’s autograph, but too many people and too much commotion made it impossible. They remained strangers for the time being.
THE FUTURE IS BUILDING
Fast forward now to a hot July night in 1956. A 27-year-old June Carter just happened to bump into a 24-year-old Johnny Cash backstage. It wasn’t any ordinary night at the Ryman, that particular night marked Johnny’s Grand Ole Opry debut.
As much as the crowd was taken by Johnny’s performance, it was nothing compared to the degree of infatuation Johnny felt for the young Carter sister. June later remembered that Johnny told her that night that he knew the two would someday marry. But, meanwhile, June asked Johnny if he would bring her back some of his records at his next performance.
The following Saturday, that’s exactly what Johnny did. But, he wouldn’t give June the records until she agreed to give him an autographed picture. Johnny got the autograph he wanted all those years back, while June got her records. Just like that, one of the most celebrated love stories country music ever knew got its start and the walls of the Ryman played a small part in it all.
The Path to Love is Not Always Straight
Like many memorable love stories, this one is full of circles and triangles. While making his Opry debut on the Ryman stage, Carl Smith, who, at the time, was June Carter’s first husband, introduced Johnny[BJ1] [BJ2] [HR3] onto the Grand Ole Opry. Carl and June had met at the Ryman too. Those watching the show that night will remember Carl Smith introducing Johnny by calling him, “the brightest rising star of country music.”
It was not long before a courtship between Johnny and June evolved, and the couple married on March 1, 1968 in Franklin, Kentucky. But their Ryman Auditoirum story doesn’t end there.
Johnny Cash became an Opry member soon after making his initial debut on July 7, 1956. However, his extensive touring schedule made it hard for him to uphold the performance quota established by the show. Johnny would appear as a guest artist from time to time until one night in 1965, while under the influence of amphetamines, he smashed the footlights on the stage. That performance got him banned for a time from performing on the Opry show, which was performed at the Ryman.
THE SHOW GOES ON
The ban did not last. By 1968, Johnny returned to the Opry stage at the Ryman. And when ABC-TV approached him about the idea of hosting his own variety show, he was all in. The Johnny Cash Show show ran from 1969 to 1971, and when ABC asked Johnny where he would like to film the show, he insisted it be at Ryman Auditorium. A curious choice since they had to work around the schedule of the Grand Ole Opry and, at the time, the Ryman had no air-conditioning.
“The heat won’t bother me,” Johnny said. “If the ABC guys can handle it, I can too.”
One of the reasons Johnny was so enthused about his show was that he himself was in charge of choosing the musical acts to perform. Naturally, his wife performed all the time – sometimes with her husband, sometimes solo and sometimes with The Carter Family. But, Johnny challenged the norm and selected acts from the country charts, as well as rock lineups. Artists like The Guess Who, Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder and more, took to the Ryman stage and gathered a whole new audience as a result of performing on The Johnny Cash Show.
While performances and gatherings at the Ryman with Johnny and June became more sparse after the Opry moved to its new home at the Opry House across town in 1974, the love the two started in the building and shared for a lifetime goes on. There’s even a Johnny Cash themed dressing room in his honor backstage at the Ryman. Really, the whole building, in a way, is a celebration of a love story that will never be forgotten.