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I don't fly a chopper but I finally made it to Johnny Cash's pad

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Man in Black's historic lakefront property for sale

As a teenager growing up in Arkansas, I was raised on classic country music as I listened to the sounds of Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn, George Hamilton IV, David Houston and Johnny Cash.

A few of guitar-playing pals were often picking out the tunes of our favorite Arkie singer, Mr. Cash, who in those years was charting with songs like "Ring of Fire," "Folsom Prison Blues, "Daddy Sang Bass," "A Boy Named Sue" and "Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down."

Some 10 or so years later, I found myself sitting in the Living Department of The Nashville Tennessean editing the paper's weekend entertainment magazine, "Sunday Showcase."

I didn't cover the Music Row beat, but once in a blue moon I interviewed a few country singers. I don't think I ever got too star-struck, but confess I enjoyed palavering with people whose songs I enjoyed on the radio. In my 30-plus years at the big paper, I only had one country star on my dying-to-meet list, and that was Johnny Cash.

I came close, I mean real close, but it just wasn't meant to be.

Strike one

A few weeks back, I read that the property where he lived his last 35 years was on the market. That resurrected a few bittersweet memories.

In the fall of 1978, I received a dinner invitation from Columbia Records to Mr. Cash's house. I do not remember the occasion, but his record label probably invited dozens of media and other folks. The affair was being held on a Wednesday night. My raising had led me to devoutly attend Wednesday night prayer meetings, thus I begged out. Perhaps, I nonchalantly figured this was an annual shebang, and I would get an invitation the following year.

How wrong I was. Strike one.

Strike two

My next opportunity to possibly meet Mr. Cash came a few years later when he called me one morning at the paper after an interview ran that I had conducted with cowboy star Gene Autry. Autry had been an idol of Cash as a boy, and he was in Nashville to attend a National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum board meeting. Thus, Mr. Cash rang my number, wanting to know how he could get ahold of the matinee star.

Unfortunately, I had stepped away from my desk for three minutes. When I returned, a secretary said, "Hey, Johnny Cash called for you." I asked if he left a number, and she said, nope. Strike two.

Strike three

Then, in 1985, I discovered that NBC was going to produce a TV western, "The Last Days of Frank and Jesse James," starring Mr. Cash and Kris Kristofferson as Frank and Jesse James, in Springfield, Robertson County. I called the production company in Hollywood and explained that I was no actor but a wordsmith and wondered if they might have an extra role for me, and by the way, I asked, it would be mighty fine if there might be a spot for me as a cowboy who gets shot.

They called me back a day later and told me, yep. So, a few weeks later, dressed from cowboy hat on my head to western boots on my feet, I found myself playing a deputy. I got to plunk shots at Mr. Cash after he and Kristofferson had robbed a bank, mounted their horses and were hightailing it out of town. Mr. Cash shoots me and I flop down and die on the Robertson County courthouse steps.

While the cameras were being moved, I spent 30 minutes gawking within 20 feet of Mr. Cash but dared not interrupt as he and Kristofferson seemed to be in earnest conversation.

Strike three. I'm not only out, but I'm dead.

(There was a bright side. I did get to play cowboys with the Man in Black.)

Former property a nice substitute

In the article I penned for "The Tennessean," my first line went: Johnny Cash kills me.

I thought that was pretty funny and still do. Ha. But I have always been on the corny side.

Upon reading about the Cash place being for sale a week or so back, I connected with the property's listing agent, Stan Peacock of Crye-Leike Realtors in Hendersonville, and asked if he might guide me on a short tour of the plot of land that Johnny called home sweet home. He kindly agreed.

The 13,880-square-foot house on Old Hickory Lake had been sold in 2006 to singer Barry Gibb of Bee Gees fame, and he and his wife were in the process of having it restored when a fire consumed the house, leaving nothing but the stone foundation, some charred timbers and a lot of rock walls.

Gibb originally intended to rebuild but instead elected to sell it in 2014 for $2 million or so to Texan James Gresham, who has now made the estate available for some lucky, well-heeled Cash fan that must be ready to walk the line.

The guardhouse, a garage, swimming pool, tennis court, covered boat dock and a lot of wrought-iron and stonework still stand on the 4½-acre property at 200 Caudill Drive. It also holds an apartment with a bedroom, studio, small kitchen and bathroom that Gresham created from what had served as June's wardrobe/dressing room.

Gresham described himself to the Wall Street Journal as a "huge fan" of Mr. Cash. He has not put a price on the property but told the Journal, "In my mind it would be some person [who] is a huge Johnny Cash fan."

"This place would make the ultimate Christmas gift for the person that can afford it," hinted realtor Peacock.

Helicoptered in, but nobody was home

As we amble among the ruins of massive rock walls and charred timbers, he shares a bit of history touching upon the parties that were held for such guests as Bob Dylan, Billy Graham and Ronald Reagan, and about the day an unknown, struggling tunesmith named Kristofferson landed a helicopter on the premises hoping to get Mr. Cash to listen to his songs. (Mr. Cash was not home at the time.)

"There's nothing like it. There's not another place like this in the world," said Peacock, a good salesman. "We're walking on ground where Johnny and June were walking, talking and living and dreaming. Johnny sat down here and picked his guitar and wrote hits.

"How can you put a price on a property that's priceless? This property may not be available again in our lifetime. There's not another 4½-acre ground on Old Hickory Lake. This has got 1,000 feet of lakefront."

The place presents a spectacular view of the lake. Massive oak trees and other hardwoods abound on the property. It's just a shame the house, which former neighbor Marty Stuart dubbed "the Graceland of country music" and which once boasted four 35-feet round rooms, seven bedrooms and five bathrooms, is gone for good.

Cash, Gibb left their mark

Among the more curious wonders here is a twin oak that bears Mr. Cash's mug carved into one of its trunks and Barry Gibb's face carved in the other. It appears that in recent days a woodpecker has been whittling a bit on Mr. Cash's face.

Peacock noted that while they are taking bids, the sale is "not an auction."

"We are taking offers and receiving offers based on buyers' intent and reasonable offers hoping to carry on Johnny's legacy. There is no deadline. We do not have a buyer picked out. People can send offers to me at my email address, peacocks@crye-leike.com," he said.

"If we're not satisfied with intent and pricing, the sale could be extended into next year. This property is far too important to place an absolute limitation on."

Agent who knows Cash

Peacock has personal connections to Mr. Cash.

His father-in-law, Floyd Robinson, who died earlier this year, was a singer and songwriter who played lead guitar as a member of "The Grand Ole Opry" stage band for years. In 2004, Mr. Robinson bought the ranch house across the street from the Cash abode. It had served as the residence of Mr. Cash's parents and was referred to as "Mama Cash's house."

Peacock knew the Man in Black, and said, "I only met him a couple of times, but he was quite the stately gentleman and very personable."

Surveying the landscape and ruins of a mighty mansion, Peacock concluded, "Everything was big. He didn't do anything small. There's people that come from all over the world. They'll stop and peek over the fence and take pictures, but they don't cross the line. There's a lot of reverence."

As for who or how many possible buyers have been looking at the property, Peacock remains mum.

He closes the tour saying, "The right one may hit today or it could be in January. There's no real rush on this. The right one will make history."

That well may be the case. But will the new owner ever see the likes of a Sunday mornin' comin' down via helicopter? And will the new resident be worthy of adding a carving of his or her face to the property's distinguished grove gallery?

My last brush with Man in Black

As I left and drove past the old guard shack, I looked over my shoulder for a last glance. I appreciated the history and recalled that long-ago supper invite to the Cash compound that I turned down.

I believe Mr. Cash, a spiritual man, would have approved of my decision, if I'd only gotten the chance to tell him.

I didn't know back then that the closest I would get to him was when he left me for dead as I lay face up on the Springfield courthouse steps, staring toward the heavens. I've been looking up to him ever since.

Writer Ken Beck may be contacted at kbtag2@gmail.com.

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Barry Gibb, for sale, Johnny Cash, Johnny Cash home, Ken Beck
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