Johnny Cash was an iconic figure who not only represented the great and the good of rock and roll, the very essence of its spirit but also had a pivotal role in shaping the entire music industry as we know it today. What’s most impressive is that the singer pulled it all off while remaining a man of the people. The Man in Black was a maverick figure that did everything on his own terms; there’s not a truer indictment of this persona as a fact of life than in his final, defiant performance. Under the spotlight, there was simpler, nobody better.
Cash’s last year on earth was arguably the most moving and profound of his astonishing career. Once he knew his days were numbered, the singer was keen to ensure he used each one to its fullest and propelled both himself and his legacy into the mainstream consciousness one more time. It was topped off with one of his final releases, ‘Hurt’, a cover of Nine Inch Nails with which Cash epitomised not only his ability to share a poignant message but his ability to handle the emotional weight that came with it. Cash was still as strong as an ox.
Cash’s reimagination of the Nine Inch Nails track is in the conversation for not only the greatest cover version of all time but also the best video of all time. It’s a painful clip in many ways as you can almost see the great man’s life moving through his eyes, flashing synapses and sparking his memory as his lips continue to mouth the lyrics he’d only read, meaning every word he uttered.
In the weeks preceding his death, he would conduct one final interview as part of his celebratory victory lap, looking back on a life well lived that few could have imagined he would even live to see.
It was as poignant as you would expect with Cash remarking to not only his interviewer but his fans from across the generations: “You can’t let people delegate to you what you should do,” Cash says, motioning to his chest and eyes lighting up, “When it’s coming from way in here, you know? I wouldn’t let anybody influence me into thinking I was doing the wrong thing by singing about death, hell, and drugs.”
This was the ethos that Johnny Cash lived his life by; it is why Cash has become such a symbolic figure of ultimate freedom and artistic drive. A figure which represented authenticity and wearing your heart on your sleeve until your last dying breath. His final live performance is just as heartbreaking as the video for ‘Hurt’; it took place at the historic Carter Family Folds venue, which would play such a prominent part in his career. Cash was the only artist that they would waive their no electric instruments policy for.
The night would be July 5th, 2003, when he would take to the stage for one final time, just two months after his beloved June’s death and two months before he would join her once more.
The venue would be found three miles down a narrow country road from Hiltons, in a large wooden structure known as the Carter Family Fold, a warm and happy place for the singer. Cash was introduced by one of the Fold founders, Janette Carter, the daughter of Sara and A.P., two-thirds of the original Carter Family with Maybelle Carter. Cash, who toured and recorded with the Carter Family throughout the sixties, would later be welcomed into the family when he married June Carter, the second of Mother Maybelle’s three daughters.
Janette Carter helped Cash walk to the stage as he had become so weak that he could no longer make it to the microphone unassisted, but he made damn sure that he wasn’t going to be brought up to the stage in a wheelchair. Propped up by two assistants, Cash made his way to the stage where he would perform a 30-minute sermon for the final time.
Cash and his band treated the entranced audience to performances of ‘Folsom Prison Blues’, ‘I Walk the Line’, ‘Ring Of Fire’ and ‘Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down’ before fittingly paying tribute to his late wife in a moment in a building of such dear importance to her. It’s a touching moment of sheer love and respect. “The spirit of June Carter overshadows me tonight,” he said.
“With the love she had for me and the love I have for her, we connect somewhere between here and Heaven. She came down for a short visit tonight, I guess, from Heaven, to visit with me tonight and give me courage and inspiration, like she always has.”
The Man In Black would make a left-field choice in the last song he would perform to the crowd, which was illustrative of his whole career as he would treat the audience to ‘Understand Your Man’, which he had not played in 25 years before that evening.
Get the tissues at the ready and watch Cash’s final ever live performance, below.