When some artists get older, they lose the strength of their voice and what you are left with is a pale imitation of the artist that once was—Johnny Cash was most certainly not one of those artists. As ‘The Man in Black’ got older, the gravel road of his vocal cords took on the timbre of memory lane and gave his performances a richness that few could ever compete with.
He was always a singer with a lived-in quality, but the years were kind enough to make his words sound even more timeless. His cracked and weathered tones gave his old songs a hymnal feel and that shines through stunningly with his final live performance of the classic Cash hit ‘Ring of Fire’.
Nick Cave was an artist who was lucky enough to perform with Cash during his final outings and he poetically described the way that the old country star seemed to be reinvigorated by music. “When Johnny first came down those stairs into the studio, he looked really frail and sick, but once he started singing, he was really brought back to life. It was an incredible thing to see.”
At the age of 71, he would pull this revitalised feat off once more as he performed ‘Ring of Fire’ for the final time at the annual Carter Family Fold bash. According to Setlist FM, it was his third most played live track, with 486 recorded performances of it, nestling behind ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ and ‘I Walk the Line’.
Written by June Carter Cash and Merle Kilgore, the song documents Cash’s hair-raising days and the wild presence he was to be around during his dark era. Carter and Cash later became singing partners, and, in a poetic sense, Carter helped to quell the flames and get Cash clean before they married in 1968.
This stunning performance almost seems like an ode to Carter when he performed it live for the last time. It transcends the usual singalong style of the song with an air of deep spiritualism. It is a performance that fittingly captures the air of Cash, as he once put it himself: “Sometimes I am two people. Johnny is the nice one. Cash causes all the trouble. They fight.”
As the aforementioned Nick Cave once said, that duality is key to quality songwriting. “Songwriting is about counterpoint. Counterpoint is the key: putting two disparate images beside each other and seeing which way the sparks fly,” Cave is quoted as saying in the 20,000 Days on Earth documentary. “Like letting a small child in the same room as, I don’t know, a Mongolian psychopath or something, and just sitting back, and seeing what happens. Then you send in a clown, say, on a tricycle, and again.”
You check out the stirring swansong below.