On September 12th, 2003, the world bid a sad farewell to the Man in Black, Johnny Cash. The 71-year-old American icon was still grieving the loss four months earlier of his wife of 35 years, June Carter Cash, when he died from complications from diabetes in the early-morning hours at Nashville’s Baptist Hospital.
A member of the Rock and Roll, Country Music, Nashville Songwriters and Memphis Music Halls of Fame, Cash had been enjoying a resurgence in popularity after the release of “Hurt,” a cover of a Nine Inch Nails song transformed into a haunting epitaph full of regret and remorse via Cash’s unforgettable performance and his frail, gaunt appearance in the now-classic music video. Yet anyone who witnessed the unrelenting sadness in that clip need only see the legend’s final live performance, which took place just two months after his beloved June’s death and two months before his own.
The site was Hiltons, Virginia, a short distance from Bristol, the “Birthplace of Country Music,” where acts including the Carter Family made some of the very first country recordings. Just three miles down a narrow country road from Hiltons, in a large wooden structure known as the Carter Family Fold, Cash was introduced by one of the Fold founders, Janette Carter, the daughter of Sara and A.P., two-thirds of the original Carter Family with Maybelle Carter. Cash, who toured and recorded with the Carter Family throughout the Sixties, would later become inexorably linked to the family when he married June Carter, the second of Mother Maybelle’s three daughters.
Introduced by Janette Carter, Cash was too weak to walk to the microphone unassisted, but insisted on not being brought up to the stage in a wheelchair. Propped up by two assistants, Cash made his way center stage and, for the next 30 minutes, he and his band entertained the enthusiastic crowd, unleashing a remarkable set list consisting of “Folsom Prison Blues,” “I Walk the Line” and “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down,” before stopping to poignantly reflect on his late wife in a moment during which the audience fell completely silent.
“The spirit of June Carter overshadows me tonight,” he said. “With the love she had for me and the love I have for her, we connect somewhere between here and Heaven. She came down for a short visit tonight, I guess, from Heaven, to visit with me tonight and give me courage and inspiration, like she always has.”
He followed those heartfelt words with a lively performance of the song June wrote (with Merle Kilgore) that became one of his biggest hits, “Ring of Fire.” Although he had trouble at times strumming his guitar, Cash continued with the gospel tune “Angel Band,” a song that he said his wife, although not experiencing health issues at the time, requested to have sung at her memorial service by the Oak Ridge Boys, Larry Gatlin and Emmylou Harris.
Cash then returned to his early catalog with a rendition of “Big River,” which seemed to renew his spirit, even managing to coax a wry smile during an otherwise stoic set. This led to Cash pointing out the presence of electric instruments on a stage that had been known for adhering to predominately acoustic performances. With Janette and her brother, Family Fold co-founder Joe Carter, seated behind him, Cash recalled Cousin Janette’s explanation to the audience when he took the stage backed by electric instruments. “[She] said, ‘I know we don’t allow anybody to plug in when they’re here, but June said that Johnny Cash was already plugged in when she met him,” a comment which elicited rousing applause and a combination of laughter and tears from Carter, who would pass away in 2006.
Cash’s final live performance was, ironically, a song he had not performed on stage for 25 years. The 1964 single “Understand Your Man” was a six-week chart-topper for Cash, for which he borrowed elements of the melody of friend Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” Written as a caustic response to a fight with his first wife, Vivian Liberto, the mother of his four daughters, Cash was struggling with drug and alcohol addiction at the time and his relentless touring schedule placed further strain on the marriage, which would end in divorce in 1968 — just before his wedding to June Carter, who was, as one of the people on the road with him constantly, arguably in a better position to more fully understand her man.
As his final live performance, the song may constitute an unusual coda, but it’s also a reminder that throughout his career as a performer and songwriter, Cash was an original: a rebellious, unrelentingly entertaining and imposing presence.