In 1997, Johnny Cash was diagnosed with a neurodegenerative disease called Shy-Drager syndrome, a type of multiple system atrophy. After this, he retired from touring, and though his health would get worse over the next few years, Cash still recorded in the studio.
Cash's Final Videos
In those years, Cash worked with his producer Rick Rubin, releasing two more albums, including American III: Solitary Man in 2000 and his 67th and final release in 2002, American IV: The Man Comes Around. It featured Don Henley, Nick Cave, and Fiona Apple, as well as numerous covers, including his moving rendition of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt," which ended up receiving numerous awards from the Grammys, Country Music Association, and Americana Music Association.
In May 2003, Rubin received a call from Cash saying his wife of 35 years, June, had just died the day before. However, Cash called to say that he wanted to work on some final songs, and within the next four months, he recorded 30. "He wasn't well enough to tour anymore," Rubin said in a MusicRadar interview, "His partner was gone. And his choice was to die or to carry on, and he chose to carry on."
Their final recording sessions together resulted in two posthumous albums, including the Unearthed box set and 2006 release American V: A Hundred Highways, which included two new original songs: "I Came to Believe" and "Like the 309." The latter was the last song ever written and recorded by Cash.
Like the 309
Being infatuated with trains as a child, "Like the 309" was a fitting final song for Cash. It can even be considered a callback to his very first song in 1955, "Hey Porter," which recounts a train ride and conversation with one of the employees on board. However, that's not the end of his locomotive-inspired music. Cash also recorded and released two train-themed albums, Ride This Train in 1960 and his 1962 compilation All Aboard the Blue Train with Johnny Cash.
"Like the 309" serves as a sort of ending to "Hey Porter" and his other train-dedicated records. The song focuses on and tells the story of a final journey on a train and his own mortality.
It should be a while before I see doctor Death
So, it would sure would be nice if I could get my breath
Well, I'm not the cryin', nor the whinin' kind
Til I hear the whistle of the 309, of the 309, of the 309
Put me in my box on the 309
The Final Performance
Johnny Cash, 71, sadly left us on September 12th, 2003. However, several months before that, on July 5th, 2003, he performed one last show at the Carter Family Fold concert hall in Hiltons, Virginia.
As original as Johnny Cash gets, he sat in a chair with his guitar in hand and performed "Folsom Prison Blues," "I Walk the Line," and "Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down," before devoting a few words to June, who had passed away two months earlier on May 15 at the age of 73.
He was quoted saying, "The spirit of June Carter overshadows me tonight with the love she had for me and the love I have for her," said Cash. "We connect somewhere between here and heaven. She came down for a short visit, I guess, from heaven to visit with me tonight to give me courage and inspiration like she always has. She's never been one for me, except courage and inspiration. I thank God for June Carter. I love her with all my heart."
His Lasting Impact
Johnny Cash's reach was vast as one of the best-selling music artists of all time, selling over 90 million records worldwide. He also inspired the future of country and folk music with his deep baritone voice and rebellious personality while still remaining humble and caring. He played free concerts and recorded albums in several different prisons that charted number one on the Billboard charts.
His album, Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison (1968), and the song "Folsom Prison Blues" left an indelible memory in the area. To cement that memory (literally), the city of Folsom constructed the Johnny Cash Trail, a 2.5-mile Class 1 bike and pedestrian trail. It connects both the Folsom Historic District homes to restaurants and shops to the Folsom Lake Crossing trail, welcoming all to the heart of historic Folsom. The trail is also adding many art installations along the way, one of which is being fabricated right now! These art installations pay tribute to the legacy of the Man in Black.
Johnny Cash may have recorded and performed his final song in 2003, but his legacy lives on in his work, family, and unique tributes all over the world.
Learn more about the Johnny Cash Trail, a one-of-a-kind nature trail and art exhibit near Folsom Prison.