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An everyman luminary, Cash is laid to rest

The country music legend is recalled as an Abraham Lincoln with a wild side.

September 16, 2003|Robert Hilburn and Geoff Boucher | Times Staff Writers

HENDERSONVILLE, Tenn. — The stage salutation of Johnny Cash was so famous, so familiar, that through the years he could count on a wild ovation just by uttering the four words "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash." Monday afternoon, after five decades in a sublime career, it was finally time to say goodbye.

The singer's family, friends and music stars gathered for a funeral service in a red brick Baptist church here, not two miles from the home of Cash and just off of Johnny Cash Parkway, renamed years ago to honor the community's most famous resident.

The two-hour ceremony was by turns solemn and cheerful and laced throughout with music. The day was bright and warm outside and the event as dignified as the singer's own career. Only at the end, as relatives passed by the open coffin, did sobs overwhelm Cash's loved ones.

Cash, ailing for years and overwhelmed in his final days with complications from diabetes, died Friday at age 71, four months after his partner in music and life, June Carter Cash, died at 73. The context of his health and his widower's grief made many at Monday's service feel at least there was some relief in his passing.

Kris Kristofferson, like others, still looked shaken by the loss of his mentor and hero. The songwriter looked ashen next to the casket, where he sat facing the congregation with Lou Robin, Cash's longtime manager, and the pastor, the Rev. Courtney Wilson. The casket was adorned with an intricate wreath on it, with roses, figs, potatoes, cotton on the twig within its weave, an appropriately earthy garland for a Southern man who worked the fields in his youth and never traded rural life for stardom in a city.

"Thank you, Lord, for blessing us with the presence of this wonderful man," Kristofferson said in prayer at the beginning of the two-hour ceremony at the First Baptist Church. "He was the best of America."

Kristofferson added: "He was a deeply spiritual man ... but also something of a holy terror, an Abraham Lincoln [on the] wild side."

The audience was dotted with luminaries of the music world where Cash and his family were royalty.

Among the mourners were George Jones, Hank Williams Jr., Kid Rock, Vince Gill, Dwight Yoakam, Travis Tritt, Marty Stuart, Barbara Mandrell and Rick Rubin, the producer of Cash's acclaimed "American Recordings" series.

The speakers included former Vice President Al Gore, who counted Cash as a constituent while in the U.S. Senate and a supporter during his presidential bid.

The crowd seemed relieved for a light moment when Gore described himself as a "recovering politician." He went on to say: "I used to be the next president of the United States, and if it was up to Johnny Cash, I would have been."

The politician quoted from Cash's songs, including the signature 1956 hit "Folsom Prison Blues" and "Hurt," the Nine Inch Nails song that Cash interpreted for his final album.

The service was preceded by a gentle piano versions of spirituals including "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," the Carter Family classic.

It ended with Larry Gatlin, a country star who named his son after Cash, leading the mourners in singing "Oh Come, Angel Band." "My latest sun is sinking fast/ My race is almost run/ My strongest trials now are past/ My triumph is begun." Emmylou Harris and Sheryl Crow also sang the hymn "The Old Rugged Cross" and Bob Dylan's "Every Grain of Sand."

Cash's own voice -- that unmistakable, unvarnished baritone -- filled the church during a video montage that showed scenes of him through the years, with such memorable moments as a duet with Dylan and an early version of "I Walk the Line" where the eyes of the darkly handsome young Cash flashed with vitality. In the narrative Cash is heard saying he is neither preacher nor prophet, only a "singer of songs."

The church where the mourners gathered was the same one where, in the 1960s, June Carter brought her troubled lover in search of his salvation. Cash was addicted to pills and spinning out of control.

He later would say again and again that she had saved his life and his soul.

The couple were familiar faces beneath the church's white steeple, as well as frequent visitors to the local Shoney's and the Kroger's supermarket. Cash's music -- songs such as "Folsom Prison Blues" or "Man in Black" -- were tunes of the everyman and everyday life, and his quiet, small-town life reflected that same ethos.

A memorial for the public is being scheduled as well.

Rosanne Cash, Johnny's daughter from his first marriage and a country star herself, struggled to speak about the loss of her father. She said people have approached her to say they can't "imagine a world without Johnny Cash."

She said his songbook keeps the singer alive for the public but that she "can't even begin to imagine a world without Daddy."

Last year she recorded a duet with him, "September When it Comes," that appeared on her latest album. The song was a poignant poem of an adult child and their parent approaching the twilight. The title of the song now seems eerily prescient, and the lyrics even more touching: "When the shadows lengthen and burn away the past/ they will fly me like an angel to a place where I can rest."

She and John Carter Cash, son of Johnny and June, were with their father when he died about 2 a.m. Friday.

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