Kristofferson Coming Down: Landing a Helicopter on Cash’s Lawn

Johnny Cash's Hendersonville, TN lake house

Johnny Cash’s Hendersonville, TN lake house

On Tuesday April 22rd, the lakefront property on Old Hickory Lake in Hendersonville, TN just north of Nashville that was Johnny Cash’s home for 40 years, was sold to a real estate holdings company. The previous owner, Bee Gee’s frontman Barry Gibb bought the house on four lots in January of 2006 to make it a songwriter’s retreat, but his plans were foiled when a house fire burned the seven-bedroom “nature house” to the ground in April 2007 during the renovation process, leaving any hope for a future country music Graceland up in smoke.

Aside from supplying a roof over Johnny Cash and June Carter for so many years, the Johnny Cash lakehouse became famous for some of the most legendary guitar pulls and songwriting parties popular music has ever seen. As an example, in 1969, Johnny Cash hosted Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson, Joni Mitchell, Graham Nash, and Shel Silverstein all in the same sitting. “That night in my house [was] the first time these songs were heard”¦” Johnny Cash recalled. “Joni Mitchell sang ‘Both Sides Now,’ Graham Nash sang ‘Marrakesh Express,’ Shel Silverstein sang ‘A Boy Named Sue,’ Bob Dylan sang ‘Lay Lady Lay,’ and Kristofferson sang ‘Me & Bobby McGee.’” The gathering has since been coined by Saving Country Music as the “Million Dollar Songwriter Circle.”

And that’s just where the stories about Cash’s Hendersonville home begin. Arguably the most legendary tale transpired earlier in 1969 when Kris Kristofferson, a former helicopter pilot during the Vietnam War, landed a National Guard chopper on the lawn of of the Hendersonville house to hand-deliver demos to Cash in an act of desperation.

At the time, Kristofferson was working as a janitor at the offices of Columbia Records where Johnny Cash was signed. Kristofferson had met Cash a number of times, in the studio and backstage at The Grand Ole Opry, but Cash wouldn’t show any attention to young Kristofferson’s songwriting aspirations. Kris would slip Cash demos of his work, or give them to June Carter or Luther Perkins when he had a chance, but according to Cash, he would take them home to the Hendersonville house and toss them into Old Hickory Lake.

johnny-cash-kris-kristoffersonKristofferson took part-time work with the National Guard to help pay bills, and desperate to get Johnny Cash’s attention, decided to deviate from his flight plan while on a training run and land his helicopter in the Hendersonville property’s front yard. What happened next depends on who you ask. According to Cash, Kristofferson came sauntering out of the helicopter with a beer in one hand, and his demo tapes in another, demanding to be heard. But Kristofferson paints a more subdued picture. “Y’know, John had a very creative imagination,” Kristofferson recalled to UnCut. “I’ve never flown with a beer in my life. Believe me, you need two hands to fly those things.” In fact Kristofferson doesn’t even remember Cash being at the house at the time, though he does say, “I still think I was lucky he didn’t shoot me that day!”

What was the result of Kris Kristofferson’s aeronautical attention grab? It got Johnny Cash to invite him up on stage at the Newport Folk Festival later that year, which put Kris Kristofferson on the country music map. Cash would finally go on to give some attention to those Kristofferson demos, and eventually cut Kris’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” The song went on to become a #1 hit. It also won the CMA’s Song of the Year in 1970, and is given credit as one of country music’s first “Outlaw” moments of stretching the lyrical boundaries in the genre.

No word of what the new owners have in store for the hallowed ground on Old Hickory Lake in Hendersonville, but one hopes it respects the history of that place. And maybe they should consider installing a helipad.