Randy Noles is the author of "Orange Blossom Boys: The Untold Story of Ervin T. Rouse, Chubby Wise and the World's Most Famous Fiddle Tune," a critically acclaimed book on song and the colorful yet tragic characters who composed it. To find out more about this fascinating book, go here.
Johnny Cash Grieves in Surprise Performance
By Randy Noles
HILTONS, VA.- A frail and grieving Johnny Cash delivered a brief but emotional performance this weekend at the ancestral home of his wife and singing partner, June Carter Cash, who died May 23 of complications from heart surgery.
Cash, 71 and suffering from autonomic neuropathy, a progressive nervous disorder, sang six songs on Saturday night at the Carter Family Fold, a rustic music hall in the isolated Poor Valley region of Hiltons, VA, where commercial country music traces its roots. The Cash family maintains homes in Hiltons and Jamaica in addition to a sprawling lakefront mansion in Hendersonville, a Nashville suburb.
Prompted by a small newspaper ad, the original Carter Family--A.P. Carter, 35, his wife Sara, 29, and 18-year-old Maybelle, Sara's cousin and A.P.'s sister-in-law--traveled from Poor Valley to Bristol, TN, on August 1, 1927 to audition for a Victor Talking Machine talent scout named Ralph Peer. The recordings they made that day, and throughout the 1930s and 1940s, helped to shape a genre.
June, second-youngest of Maybelle's three daughters, married the brooding and self-destructive Cash in 1967, helping to wean him from drug addiction and joining him in the studio to record such hits as "Jackson" and "If I Were a Carpenter." Their 39-year union was considered one of the industry's great love stories.
Cash's performance at the 1,100-seat Fold on Saturday was a rare public appearance for the Man in Black, who is largely confined to a wheelchair due to a diabetes-related foot injury. He also has breathing difficulty and has been hospitalized numerous times for pneumonia, which is a complication of autonomic neuropathy.
Although Cash's presence was unadvertised, word of his last-minute decision to perform spread quickly in this close-knit Appalachian community--and around the world via the Internet. As a result, more than 2,000 people packed the Fold and spilled over onto the hilly grounds surrounding it. Some fans made pilgrimages from as far away as Florida and Texas.
There was a moment of high drama when Cash, who insisted upon walking into the building and up the three steps leading to the stage, was escorted in a side entrance with two assistants gripping each arm. He took halting and obviously difficult steps as the crowd stood and cheered. Once onstage, he sat in a chair for his set.
Cash, still an imposing black-clad figure despite the ravages of illness, was backed by his son and daughter-in-law, John Carter Cash and Laura Cash, on acoustic guitar and violin. Also onstage was former Cash sideman Jerry Hensley on electric guitar.
Sounding raspy but game, Cash performed "Folsom Prison Blues" and "Sunday Morning Coming Down" before he spoke his first words--which were about June.
"I can't tell you what it feels like to play here tonight," he said. This is the first time I've been here without my baby. The pain of a loss like that, it's just indescribable. But this is part of the healing process for me. And I know June is here with us, because she loved this place and she loved all of you."
Cash then asked Laura Carter to sing June's part of a gospel duet the two recorded and frequently performed in concert. "Far Side Banks of Jordan" is a poignantly apt song about a man and wife who pledge that whoever "is first to pass" will wait for the other on the river's banks.
The chorus concludes with the lyrics: "And when I see you coming, I will rise up with a shout, and come running through the shallow water reaching for your hand." Many in the audience were openly weeping during this song, which the Cashes had said was their favorite duet.
After a shaky rendition of his signature tune, "I Walk the Line," Cash was helped from the stage as fans pressed closer so they could touch him, embrace him, offer condolences and take pictures.
Following Cash's performance, prodigal stepdaughter Rosey Nix, once a promising country-blues singer before personal and physical problems derailed her career, sang two songs, including a subdued version of "How Great Thou Art," which she dedicated to "my mama, who was my biggest fan."
Ironically, despite his current struggles, Cash's recording career is hotter than it has been in decades. His new album, "The Man Comes Around," was just certified gold. And a video for the song "Hurt," originally recorded by Nine-Inch Nails and covered by Cash, has been No. 1 on CMT and in heavy rotation on VH1
The eerie production, which disturbed some longtime fans but attracted legions of new ones, depicts a white-haired Cash contemplating his mortality while surrounded by mementos of his storied career. His wife appears in one segment, appearing to mourn Cash as though he were "the first to pass."