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Johnny Cash (2002): At home and at peace

Cash keeps the albums coming, though his days of touring are just a memory. It seems illness won't silence the Man in Black.

October 20, 2002|Robert Hilburn | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
  • COUNTRY RETREAT: Cash sits among musicians at a rural Virginia auditorium, where he takes the stage a few times a year.
COUNTRY RETREAT: Cash sits among musicians at a rural Virginia auditorium,… (Josh Meltzer / For The Times )

Maces Springs, Va. -- John R. Cash was born Feb. 26, 1932, which means a recent Saturday was somewhere around his 25,800th day on Earth. That he spent most of that day in a modest, two-story wood-frame house in a quiet Virginia valley says a lot about the country music pillar and the historic locale.

Cash and his wife, June Carter Cash, own glamorous estates in Nashville and Jamaica, but they find special comfort in the beauty and tradition of this house and this unspoiled valley, both of them the home to country music's hugely influential Carter Family.

"It comes down to solitude and peace of mind," Cash says, sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch. "That's something we cherish now. The phone rarely rings up here.

"We bought this place in the early '80s. June grew up here, and it has always been her dream to come back here. We make it a couple of times a year. I wish we could make it more."

It was the inspired mountain music of the Carter Family -- A.P., Sara and Maybelle -- that helped lay the foundation for modern country and bluegrass music in the 1920s. As a boy in Dyess, Ark., Cash heard such Carter Family tunes as "Keep on the Sunny Side" and "Wabash Cannonball" on the radio, and he dreamed of being a singer himself.

Cash has lived that dream for nearly half a century. He's done more than anyone since Hank Williams to raise the artistic level of country music, thanks to his blue-collar tales of human desire and redemption. Hailed as an influence by everyone from Bob Dylan to Bono, he has been voted into the country music, rock 'n' roll and songwriter halls of fame.

Over the years, the Man in Black, as he is known for his trademark garb, has spent close to 8,000 of his days on tour.

But those days are long behind him. The years have been hard on Cash, a hellion in his younger days who battled a fierce amphetamine addiction.

Many assumed Cash's music career was over six years ago when doctors told him that he had a rare, life-threatening neurological disorder, but the singer didn't give up. He has recorded three more albums, two of which won Grammys. The third will be released Nov. 5.

Even after learning in 2000 that the diagnosis was false, he has continued to suffer from failing health. Cash has been hospitalized several times for pneumonia, once spending nearly two weeks in a coma. Glaucoma robs him of much of his eyesight, causing a sometimes unsteady gait. Asthma leaves him short of breath, requiring him to take rests during recording sessions.

But his mind remains sharp, and his love of music is still intense.

"Music is part of my life every day," says Cash, who is warm and surprisingly shy for someone who has been in the spotlight for so long. "It's hanging around every morning; sometimes it is with me at night. June says I was singing a song all last night in my sleep. She had to shake me."

Cash's voice breaks. "It's the asthma," he says as he reaches for a glass of water and tries to catch his breath.

In the evening, the Cashes head down the road for a guest appearance at a weekly barn dance sponsored by descendants of the Carter Family. Admission at the informal 1,000-capacity amphitheater is just $4 for adults, and the seating is first-come, first-served. The building has a homespun touch, with fans sitting on old school bus seats, church pews and movie theater chairs.

It's the only place Cash performs these days. Janette Carter, June's cousin, doesn't advertise his appearances because she doesn't want to put pressure on him if he doesn't feel up to performing. But word has spread through the county that Cash is appearing, and there's an overflow crowd.

It's an older audience, and most have followed Cash's music for years. The room explodes with cheers when he takes the stage, and for a moment the magic is back. Joined by a three-piece band, Cash opens with "Folsom Prison Blues," and his rich, deep voice is as strong as the original recording:

I hear the train a-comin'

It's rollin' round the bend.

And I ain't seen the sunshine

Since I don't know when.

I'm stuck in Folsom prison

And time keeps dragging on ...

Cash isn't a great singer technically, but he's a superb communicator whose almost conversational vocal style captures life's everyday search for comfort and salvation with uncommon warmth and conviction. Even in the most joyous tunes, however, his instrumental sound tends to be stark, as if reminding us of life's accompanying hardships.

There are flamboyant touches in his recordings (the mariachi-like horn lines in "Ring of Fire"), but the trademark sound is a "chicka-boom-chicka" guitar approach (pioneered by the late Luther Perkins) that is as steady and self-affirming an amplified heartbeat. His music is drawn equally from blues, gospel, traditional country and folk -- woven together, in such songs as "Folsom Prison Blues" and "I Walk the Line," into a rich tapestry of Americana.

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