Johnny Cash: The Man In Black’s Final Performance

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Johnny Cash
Johnny Cash

He was a man who was truly larger than life. He was the Man in Black up until his final performance. He was Johnny Cash.

It was September 12, 2003 when the world bid a sad farewell to the individual known as the Man in Black, Johnny Cash. He was a 71-year-old American icon still grieving the loss of his beloved wife four months earlier who had died from complications due to diabetes. The pair had been married for 35 years and she passed away at Nashville’s Baptist Hospital.

To say that Johnny Cash was an individual who was larger than life would be an understatement. As a member of the Rock and Roll, Country Music, Memphis Music, and Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, Cash had been enjoying a resurgence in popularity after he had released “Hurt”, which was a cover of a Nine Inch Nails. Although both versions of this song are remarkable, Cash took his version of the song and made it into a haunting epitaph full of regret and remorse. Cash’s frail, gaunt appearance made the music video an instant classic. He expanded on that mystique with his last live performance.

Johnny Cash
Johnny Cash

The site for Cash’s last performance was Hilton’s, Virginia, which incidentally is a short distance from the site known as the “Birthplace of Country Music” where there were acts from the Carter family that some of those very first country music recordings.

It was just three miles down a narrow country road in a structure known as the Carter Family Fold where Cash was introduced for the last time by Janette Carter, the daughter of A.P. and Sara, two-thirds of the original Carter Family along with Maybelle Carter.

Cash actually toured and recorded with the Carter family during the sixties, and he would ultimately become inexorably linked with the Carter family when he married June Carter, who was the second of Mother Maybelle’s three daughters.

During his last performance, Cash was assisted by Janette Carter as he was too weak to walk to the microphone on his own. However, he insisted on being brought up to the stage without the use of a wheelchair. He was propped up by two assistants, and he was able to make his way to the center stage. For the next 30 minutes, he and the accompanying band entertained an enthusiastic crowd.

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With that, Johnny Cash unleased a remarkable setlist that consisted of “Folsom Prison Blues”, “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down”, and “I Walk the Line” before stopping to have a poignant moment to reflect on his late wife in a moment where the audience had fallen 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 up on these heartfelt words with a lively performance of a song that June wrote with Merle Kilgore that would become one of his biggest hits, “Ring of Fire.” The tunes “Angel Bard” and “Big River” would follow, and he would ultimately wrap it up with “Understand Your Man”, a tune that he had not performed live in over 25 years. There is no question that Cash was a true original: rebellious, but imposing and thoroughly entertaining.

[A version of this story first published in 2016.]