Hello, I’m Johnny Cash. That’s how Johnny Cash started his concerts before firing up his early hit Folsom Prison Blues (1955). His last public performance was no exception. Before we get to the video of that performance we need a little background. First, Johnny Cash had been plagued by debilitating health problems for some time before his final concert on 5 July 2003. By July 2003, he was very frail, used a wheelchair, had partial facial paralysis, and was in mourning.
In 1997, Cash was diagnosed with Shy–Drager syndrome, a neurodegenerative disease. The diagnosis was later revised to autonomic neuropathy due to diabetes. Even as his health failed and his lungs were weakened by pneumonia, Cash continued to both record music with producer Rick Rubin and release highly regarded albums on Rubin’s label, American Recordings. Second, the love of Cash’s life, June Carter Cash died on 15 May 2003, aged 73. His final concert was two months after June’s death.
Johnny Cash’s final performance was an appearance at the Carter Family Fold at the foot of Clinch Mountain in Hiltons, Virginia. For Johnny Cash, the visit was a pilgrimage. June, his recently deceased wife, was the daughter of Maybelle Carter, who, together with her husband’s brother, A.P. Carter, and her sister-in-law, Sara Carter (A.P.’s wife and Maybelle’s first cousin), formed the first family of country music, The Carter Family. June sang with the Carter Family from the age of 10.
When the original Carter Family stopped recording in 1943, Maybelle and her three daughters performed as The Carter Sisters & Mother Maybelle. In 1950, the group joined the cast of The Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. It was at The Grand Ole Opry that June Carter first met Johnny Cash. Both were already married. The Carter Family Fold is a barn-like structure on the land of the original Carter Family homestead. It doubles as a museum and concert venue. Let’s see Johnny and June in their prime:
Jackson is a 1963 song by Billy Edd Wheeler and Jerry Leiber. Johnny Cash and June Carter’s version was released in February 1967, a year before they married on 1 March 1968. The song reached No. 2 on the US Country charts and, in 1968, it earned Johnny and June a Grammy for Best Country & Western Performance Duet, Trio or Group.
When Johnny Cash made the pilgrimage to perform at the place were The Carter Family lived and developed their seminal music, he had laryngitis and was hoarse. For some the performance must sound like a geriatric old man with a creaky, broken voice. For those that know and love the music of Johnny Cash, the concert is a testimony to his strength of character, his amazing repertoire, and his love of June Carter Cash. It is a wonder. A triumph of spirit.