Johnny Cash didn't just walk on a stage-he swaggered. For more than 40 years, from Podunk to Prague, the Man in Black loped from the wings with a distinctive, bad-ass stride, conquering honky tonks, concert halls, sports stadiums and prisons with nothing more than the power of his presence.
Singer Merle Haggard, who was an inmate at San Quentin when Cash appeared there in the late 1950s, said he was concerned that this toughest of tough crowds would ignore the somber young rockabilly. "The opening acts included strippers," Haggard recalled. "I was worried for John. But he just walked out and blew everybody else away." Not without admiration, Haggard later described Cash as "the most arrogant son-of-a-bitch that's ever stepped on a stage."
But the swagger was gone when a frail and grieving Johnny Cash, 71, performed recently at the Carter Family Fold, a ramshackle music hall near the isolated northwest Virginia community of Hiltons. This Appalachian outpost, nestled along the Clinch River in Poor Valley, is the ancestral home of Cash's late wife and singing partner, June Carter.
Now largely confined to a wheelchair due to a diabetes-related foot injury, Cash entered the barn-like building held upright by two assistants, who gripped his arms and elbows as he took halting and obviously painful steps. Three thousand people stood and cheered.
Although Cash's presence was unadvertised, word of his last-minute decision to perform spread quickly through this close-knit community-and around the world via the Internet. Fans packed the Fold and spilled over onto the hilly grounds surrounding it.
Naturally, I was there too. I'm a middle-aged writer from Florida with a wife, two children and a mortgage. I've never hopped a freight train, picked cotton, been jailed, abused drugs, gone hungry or rebelled against anything more significant than the midnight curfew my parents imposed upon me after I received my driver's license. And yet, since the age of 14, Cash's music-not to mention his outlaw persona-has been an integral part of my life; entertaining, inspiring and challenging me.
I first saw Cash on the flickering screen of a black-and-white television set. It was the summer of 1969, and I was a typical middle-schooler-pimply, pubescent and brimming with angst. I had tuned in to the first episode of Cash's ABC variety series primarily to see special guest Bob Dylan, whose music I desperately wanted to understand because the hippie intellectuals, whose ranks I aspired to join, seemed to hang on his every enigmatic word.
But it was Cash who got my attention. Dressed like a 19th-century prairie preacher, this huge man with a scarred face, coal black eyes and a mane of dark, longish hair, stood alone on the darkened stage of Nashville's Ryman Auditorium and rumbled what would become one of the most superfluous introductions in popular music: "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash."
There was nothing ambiguous about Cash's music. It was poetry, to be sure-but it was also raw, honest and accessible. Although the songs weren't specifically about insecure adolescents, they dealt with underdogs and outcasts of all varieties, and struck universal themes of love and loneliness, sin and redemption, life and death. I was hooked.
During the show's run, Cash also rambled through American history.. His weekly "Ride this Train" segment used songs, stories and images to explore such topics as the Civil War, the Pony Express, the Old West and the Transcontinental Railroad. But if Cash's interests seemed firmly rooted in the past, he was also blessed-or cursed-with a social consciousness not shared by many of his peers. Thus with one risky, audacious act, he did more to sway public opinion against the Vietnam war than any politician ever could.
In a show broadcast on Nov. 11, 1970, Cash took the stage alone and sang Dylan's antiwar anthem Blowin' in the Wind, which he interspersed with a grim narrative about the evolution of warfare and its ultimate futility. When it was finished, the audience packing this bastion of conservatism-the Ryman was then home to the Grand Ole Opry-stood and cheered.
More significantly, in living rooms across America, a subtle but profound shift took place. After all, this wasn't more whining from the likes of Jane Fonda or the Smothers Brothers-this was straight talk from a farm-hardened son of the Arkansas cotton fields, an unapologetic patriot and an entertainer who had taken his troupe to Saigon. It was as if the Silent Majority had been granted permission to question their government-and many did.
The courage this performance required is easy to overlook 35 years later, when America's involvement in Vietnam is almost universally regarded as a tragic blunder. Not so in 1970, when Haggard's love-it-or-leave-it screed Okie from Muskogee had been named Single of the Year by the Country Music Association.
In the ensuing years, I saw Cash in concert as often as possible. I seethed when silly musical trends won favor, and Cash was banished from the airwaves to make room for Urban Cowboys and Garth Brooks clones. And I rejoiced when his career surged in the mid-1990s, mainly because a new generation of young people found that Cash's music spoke to them, just as it had to me.
Now, here I was at the Fold, remembering the milestones in my life that are forever linked to that distinctive, quavering baritone voice. But I wasn't the only one feeling introspective.
"I never thought I'd live in a world where Johnny Cash couldn't walk," said Damon Bramblett, 35, an Austin-based singer who contributed a cut to Dressed in Black, a critically acclaimed Cash tribute album. Bramblett had flown from Austin to Nashville, then driven five hours to Poor Valley after learning of Cash's plans. "But I had to be here."
So did a 28-year-old woman from Kentucky who said Cash's music had helped her kick a drug habit and find God. So did a 52-year-old Vietnam veteran who said Cash's 1969 USO tour gave him hope and courage. So did a 20-year-old college coed from Florida who said Cash's musical integrity inspired her to write and perform her own songs.
Others, who had assumed Cash would never perform again, said they were thrilled to have a chance to see him in person one more time. "It's living history," said a woman who drove from Kingsport, Tenn. "I'll be able to tell my children and grandchildren that I saw this great man."
Cash is afflicted with a battery of serious maladies, at least some of which may have been aggravated by decades of hard living. In addition to diabetes, he has been diagnosed with autonomic neuropathy, a progressive nervous disorder, and chronic asthma. When his wife and soulmate unexpectedly died in May following open-heart surgery, even friends doubted that the ailing icon could survive the blow. Tabloids were already in full deathwatch mode.
Even Cash's pilgrimage to Poor Valley was rich in full-circle symbolism. Although the Cash family maintains a plantation house in Jamaica and a lakefront mansion near Nashville, it was here that June's presence would be most keenly felt, and it was here that her family essentially created what would become modern country music.
The story is familiar by now. On Aug. 1, 1927, 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 20 miles east from Poor Valley to Bristol, Tenn., 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 performing daughters, married the brooding and self-destructive Cash in 1967, helping to wean him from drug addiction-albeit temporarily-and joining him in the studio to record such hits as Jackson and If I Were a Carpenter. During their scandalous courtship-both were still married to others-June wrote the Cash classic Ring of Fire, which described love as "a burning thing" not unlike a freefall through hell.
Now, with June gone and Cash failing, it seemed a fitting time to bring down the curtain on this monumental odyssey through American musical history. And yet, against all odds, here was Johnny Cash, sitting in an armchair and sounding raspy but game, performing 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. "The pain when you lose your soulmate, it's just indescribable. It's the big one. 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 fiddler Laura Webber, his daughter-in-law, to sing June's part of a gospel duet. Far Side Banks of Jordan is a poignantly apt song about a husband 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.
After a shaky rendition of his signature tune, I Walk the Line, Cash was helped from the stage as fans pushed to get closer. "We love you, Johnny Cash!" shouted a beefy middle-aged man, wearing greasy overalls and a Carter Family baseball cap. "Hang in there, John!" yelled a spiky haired twentysomething woman, who wore a T-shirt adorned with a now- infamous 1969 photograph of a scowling Cash making an obscene gesture.
Now, the man who tamed San Quentin needs help getting dressed. That happens to our loved ones, to our idols and, ultimately, to us. How we deal with loss, age and infirmity is the final-and perhaps most difficult-test of our character. Which leads me to this question: Is Cash ready for Hillbilly Heaven?
I don't believe so. At least not quite yet. The Fold performance demonstrated that. After all, despite being crippled, hoarse, short of breath and profoundly depressed, Cash knew he could still thrill an audience-and he made the unnecessary effort to prove it.
As he made his way through the crowd to a waiting black Mercedes, two assistants made sure Cash didn't lose his footing. But on that hot Virginia night, it was reassuring to know that thousands of others were helping to lift up the Man in Black.
Randy Noles, a consulting publisher for Gulfshore Media, is the author of Orange Blossom Boys: The Untold Story of Ervin T. Rouse, Chubby Wise and the World's Most Famous Fiddle Tune. The book is available in bookstores or at a discount through www.orangeblossomboys.com
About the Carter Family Fold
Located in Hiltons, Va, the Carter Family Fold is a not-for-profit rural arts center operated by Joe and Janette Carter, surviving son and daughter of A.P. and Sara Carter. It was formally established in 1976 to promote traditional mountain music and honor the memory of the original Carter Family.
Built into a hillside on winding State Highway 614 (also known as A.P. Carter Highway) the Fold itself was cobbled together using weathered wood salvaged from old barns. Next door is a charmingly slapdash Carter Family museum housed in what was once a general store operated by A.P. Carter.
There's live music every Saturday night. Most often the headliners are regional favorites playing traditional mountain music. The concession stand features home-cooked delights such as ham biscuits and fried apple pies. Admission is $5.
The nearest city with an airport is Kingsport, Tenn., about 20 miles to the east. But many visitors fly into Nashville, Atlanta or Charlotte and enjoy a scenic drive to Hiltons and Poor Valley.
For a prerecorded message describing upcoming events, call (276) 386-9480 or (276) 645-035.