On July 5, 2003, Johnny Cash gave his final public live performance, a 30-minute set at the Carter Family Fold in Hiltons, Va.
Although visibly frail (he needed help walking from a wheelchair to a chair in front of the mic), the legend was in good spirits. Cash uttered his usual show-opening greeting — “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash” — in his familiar deep voice, and grinned as the audience clapped wildly. “I’m glad to see you folks,” he continued. “Thanks for coming to see our show.”
Cash, who strummed an acoustic during the set, was backed by bassist Bobby Starnes and a long-time collaborator, guitarist Jerry Hensley. He opened with “Folsom Prison Blues,” “I Walk the Line” and a Kris Kristofferson cover, “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down.” Although his vocal tone was shaky, the performance itself was steely, and Cash’s guitar playing was typically resonant.
“The spirit of June Carter overshadows me tonight with the love she had for me and the love I have for her,” he said. “We connect somewhere between here and Heaven. She came down for a short visit, I guess, from Heaven, to visit with me tonight, to give me courage and inspiration, like she always has.
“She’s never been one for me except courage and inspiration,” he added. “I thank God for June Carter. I love her with all my heart.” Cash then announced he “would like to do a song that she wrote that she was extremely proud of,” and kicked into a mournful version of “Ring of Fire.”
Next, Cash performed a wrenching version of “Angel Band,” a song he said his wife had asked Emmylou Harris to perform at her funeral. That was followed by two final songs, “Big River” and “Understand Your Man.” Before the latter tune, Cash joked they were “making a lot of noise up here — especially Jerry, with his electric guitar.” He then turned to the guitarist and reassured him, “It’s okay, Jerry, don’t worry — we’re not going to throw you out. I won’t let ’em.”
Cash then proceeded to tell a story about the first time he brought “electrical instruments” to the Carter Family Fold. His cousin, Janette Carter, got onstage and explained, “‘Well, I know that 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.'”
Then came “Understand Your Man,” which Cash said he hadn’t been played in 25 years, and a rousing standing ovation.
After this performance, Cash recorded several more songs, including an original, “Like the 309,” which surfaced on American V: A Hundred Highways. Cash died on Sept. 12, 2003, at the age of 71.
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