In December, 1954, Johnny Cash, Marshall Grant, and Luther Perkins stepped into the Galloway Methodist Church on the corner of Cooper and Walker for their first performance together for the Pioneers Club, a ladies church function. Over the past year, Mike McCarthy has been raising money in hopes of erecting a statue to commemorate this historical event.
I sat down with McCarthy to learn more about the Johnny Cash Statue project, which has raised over $16,000 of the $75,000 needed to erect a statue in front of the newly-bought Galloway House. –Chris Shaw
Memphis Flyer: How long have you been working on this project?
Mike McCarthy: I went to the initial owners of the church about a year ago and pitched them the idea after I finished doing a similar project in Tupelo and realized how under-statued Memphis was. I've lived in Cooper-Young for 17 years, and I started thinking about how cool it would be to have statues of neighborhood heroes. Johnny Cash being the hero of Midtown, Otis Redding the hero of Soulsville, and so forth. You could look at [the former] Forrest Park and see it as Sam Phillips park. I started the ioby site about a year ago, and we are asking for $75,000 in total.
Why do you think Cooper-Young needs this statue?
Every neighborhood has a hero, and in Memphis that's especially true. I look back at what Memphis offered in the 20th century in terms of pop culture, and a lot of it has gone away. A lot of it isn't being promoted anymore. We see Mississippi taking advantage of their cultural identity, the Mid-South identity, and that's something we could have. I think if we claim ownership of our cultural identity, it could change the perceptions of these poor or bad neighborhoods.
What's the neighborhood response been like so far?
I've had a lot of encouragement from Zac Ives (co-owner of Goner Records) and the Cooper Young Business Association. They agreed to give 10 percent of all revenue from their sales on Thursday, and they've already given $3,000 or so.
Who owns the church where you'd like to put the statue?
As of the last couple weeks, Mark Lovell, who runs the Delta Fair.
How many people do you think know that this location in Cooper-Young was where Johnny Cash played his first show with Marshall Grant and Luther Perkins?
For the last 10 years I've worked on various tourist jobs, and it was always common knowledge within those circles. This is something that's going to be more known once the statue is up, especially if the Galloway House is banking on this being a place to see live music. When I worked for Backbeat Tours, we'd always slow down by the church. It has been esoteric, but that has to do with people trying to figure out how to promote the idea. Every neighborhood in Memphis is pivotal to the history of music here. Some neighborhoods have more than one hero.
You go into these places, in this case into this basement room, and the young punk rock scene or the young high school music scene has been playing in there, but the history goes back much further. I had the pleasure of interviewing Marshall Grant there, and we all assumed that the stage in there was the stage they played on because it looks 100 years old, but Marshall Grant turned me around 180 degrees and pointed to a corner and said, "That's where we played." I thought that was very Memphis — Cash playing in a corner. I want to show people that corner and show that it doesn't have to be perfect for it to be historically significant.
Tell me more about the play based on the performance that's happening on Friday.
The play was written by Daniel Lee Perea. He's from Mississippi, and he's a filmmaker. He was originally going to play Luther (Perkins), and then it turned out he couldn't do it. Russell Rainey had played Cash in a play called Ring of Fire that Germantown Performing Arts Center had put on, and he'll be playing Cash in this play too. Robbie House, who was in Sin City Scoundrels, is playing Luther.
Cash played the Galloway Church in December 1954, and he called his mother and told her he was very proud to play the church at Christmastime. That information will be on the historic marker that we unveil on May 1st. They had a ladies club there that raised money to send missionaries different places, and that night was the first time they ever played as Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two. We are trying to be historically accurate with the songs for the play, and Rainey will perform the same songs those church ladies heard years ago in the same place.