Fifteen years ago this week, we lost Johnny Cash.
Many books have been written, movies have been made, and songs have been sung about “The Man in Black.” Recently, I saw an exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, depicting Cash’s late 1960s career revival. It was the time of “Folsom Prison Blues,” “A Boy Named Sue” and his ABC variety show. Cash took country music to the masses, spotlighting lesser-known artists who would soon become household names.
His career was a rollercoaster ride, for sure. He hit it big in the 1950s, but not like his friend Elvis Presley. The hit musical “Million Dollar Quartet” re-enacts a Sun Records jam session that included Cash, Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins. Once word got around, everybody wanted to be a fly on that wall.
After early success, Cash’s career came tumbling down. Most of those who have written about his life blame his downfall on a combination of booze, infidelity and pills. The quality of his recordings declined, and his once-solid stage show became erratic.
What finally pulled Cash out of his drug-riddled lifestyle was the result of a traffic crash in Walker County, Georgia, on Nov. 2, 1967. Cash drove his Cadillac Eldorado into the woods. After banging on doors like a wild man, he was locked up in the jail in Lafayette. The next morning Sheriff Ralph Jones opened the cell door and handed his pills back to him. The sheriff said to Cash, “God has given you free will. You can go ahead and keep doing this. But when I told my wife you were here, she cried all night. She’s a big fan of yours. I’m going to let you go, but I’d better not see you back here like this. People love you, and you need to save your life.”
Cash forever gave credit to Sheriff Jones for that wake-up call. Friends say his courtship of June Carter, of country music’s great Carter family, also helped turn him around. Scandalous at first, the relationship blossomed into a long, happy marriage, and produced some great duets.
Cash died on Sept. 12, 2003. He had been in failing health for a number of years. He hadn’t toured since 1997 due to complications from diabetes and a neurodegenerative disease that robbed him of his strong voice and sure hands. June had helped care for him, and watched over him like a mother hen. While he was recording his final albums, it was June who made sure that her ailing husband wasn’t overdoing it. He needed something to do, but not more than he could handle.
That’s why the real shocker involving the Cash family occurred a few months earlier, on May 15, 2003. June was in the hospital for heart-valve replacement surgery. With Johnny’s health problems getting so much attention, June’s condition received little notice. There were complications from the surgery, and June died within a few days. Press reports said Johnny was in a wheelchair at his wife’s funeral, “looking somber and frail.” Everyone knew he was fading, but June’s passing surely accelerated his decline.
If you’ve ever seen his final video, a song called “Hurt,” you know how unforgettable it was. Whether intentional or not, it served as a farewell to his many fans. It was filmed in Cash’s Hendersonville home in October 2002. By this time, he was unable to walk, and he was legally blind. You see the once-strapping man, unsteady and trembling, contrasted with photos and videos from his hell-raising younger days. When it was released in February 2003, the scene that choked me up was when June was looking at her sick husband, with a mixture of love and concern. Upon her sudden death, the video took on added poignancy. As is often the case in life, the caretaker did not survive the patient.
Many of us remember him as a tough guy, which is why I love this sweet birthday note he wrote for June in 1994:
“We get old and we get used to each other. We think alike. We read each other’s minds. We know what the other wants without asking. Sometimes we irritate each other. Maybe sometimes we take each other for granted.
“But once in a while, I meditate on it and I realize how lucky I am to share my life with the greatest woman I ever met. You still fascinate and inspire me. You influence me for the better. You’re the object of my desire, and the #1 Earthly reason for my existence. I love you very much.
“Happy Birthday Princess.