Remembering Johnny Cash 10 Years After His Death

Johnny Cash
Courtesy Everett Collection

A year before Johnny Cash's 2003 death, he had one of his biggest late career hits with a cover of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt." In 2005, two years after he died at 71, he was still very much in the heart of the American public as that year's Academy Awards would show when Reese Witherspoon won best actress for biopic Walk the Line and the soundtrack won a Grammy. A year later, his final collaborative effort with producer Rick Rubin, American V: A Hundred Highways, debuted atop the Billboard 200. 

His second posthumous release, American VI: Ain't No Grave, peaked at No. 3 on the charts in 2010 and sold 54,000 units in its first week.

I've heard my share of eulogies at celebrity funerals over the years, but I don't think I've ever felt a moment of heartbreak at one quite the way I did when Rosanne Cash wrapped up her tribute to her father at his funeral in Nashville 10 years ago this week. Johnny Cash "was not famous when he was teaching us to fish or to water-ski," his eldest daughter pointed out. "He was not an icon when he told us how proud he was of us. … I can live with the idea of a world without the icon Johnny Cash, because there will never be a world without him. I cannot, however, imagine a world without Daddy."

Those grief-stricken words put to shame the lesser sorrow felt by those of us who only thought of him as a father figure during his nearly 50 years in the limelight. But a decade without the public Johnny Cash has still been something to mourn in its own right. Now, as then, I think of Rosanne's words and transpose them into the old hit that Paul McCartney wrote for Peter and Gordon: "I don't care what they say/I won't stay/In a world without Cash."

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He died around 1 a.m. on the morning of Sept. 12, 2003. Later that same day, I got Kris Kristofferson on the phone to talk about his buddy, and he mentioned what was on everyone's mind: that it had only been three months since Cash's wife, June Carter Cash, had passed. "He was a fighter, and he had a strong spirit, but it was the hardest thing that he probably ever faced in his life," Kristofferson told me. "His kids told me that he still cried all the time at night. Which is …" Kristofferson paused. "Hell, I've never seen Johnny Cash cry, you know."

Three days later, I got to see Kristofferson softly weeping, out of the corner of my eye, as both of us stood silently over Cash's open casket at a visitation the night before the funeral. I felt it was a moment too sacred for me to share, so I made my way out of the room, but not without feeling as if I'd stood next to Jesse Jackson at a visitation for Martin Luther King Jr., or been witness to Muhammad Ali mourning Joe Louis.

(If that seems like an odd analogy, I credit Kristofferson for giving me boxers on the brain, since he'd told me a few days before that Cash had "evolved into this beloved figure, all over the world. I know -- I've been all over the world with him -- and they love him, just like they love Muhammad Ali.")

I spoke to others who knew him in the days between Cash's death and his funeral. "The last time I saw him, 10 days before he died, he looked really good to me," said Rodney Crowell, Rosanne's ex-husband. "He really was looking like he was gaining some wind and starting to perk up. But I think diabetes is always a lot more nasty disease than we think, and there was quite a bit of that diabetic stuff that was really ripping him up. If you're in your 70s and really in good health when you lose a longtime partner, you can kind of endure the grief and maybe go on and build a new life, of some sort, even if it'll never be the same. Paul McCartney has done that [after Linda], in his way. And I was kind of hoping for that for Johnny. But that was kind of selfish, and I was just thinking, 'You know what? He's gotten tired,' and I think better to cash it all in, you know? And get a break."

He might have been grave-tired, but he hadn't lost his levity. Kristofferson told me, "He kept his humor right up through the darkest stuff. When I went to see him last, when they were having a visitation at the funeral home for June, I sat down next to him there. People were coming by to shake his hand and everything. One guy came by and when he saw me there, he said, 'Oh, listen, you are a great singer! You're one of my favorite singers.' And then he moved on. And John looked down at me and said, 'Well, that's one.' "

Ironically, at the time of his death, Cash was enjoying more acclaim that he had in years … for revealing his mortality, in the video he made for his cover of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt," which won him plaudits at both the MTV and CMA awards. Trick Pony's Ira Dean told me that in their last conversation, he'd "called him about his CMA nomination, and I said 'It's about damn time.' He started laughing. I said, 'You're selling some records, aren't you?' He said, 'Finally, again. You know, they just turned over a stone, and there I was.' "

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The day of the funeral, I drove to Cash's home on Caudill Drive in Hendersonville, Tenn., where at any given time that week a couple of dozen fans stood outside the gates, stone-faced, as if they expected Cash to emerge at any moment and drive a tractor into Old Hickory Lake. (Walk the Line was still a year away from being filmed, but the faithful hardly needed a biopic to learn the lore surrounding the homestead.)

The funeral was an amalgam of public and private. Unlike George Jones' recent sendoff, which was held at the Opry House, open to the public, and streamed and telecast live, Cash's was actually held at a church, and you won't find any clips on YouTube. (Although technically a closed affair, members of the public were not turned away.) As mourners entered, the pianist played "I Walk the Line" in the style of a chipper Southern gospel hymn. Then came probably the first and last video montage at the First Baptist Church of Hendersonville ever to include a clip of the deceased appearing on Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. The vocal hymnody was an all-star affair. Emmylou Harris and Sheryl Crow harmonized together on "The Old Wooden Cross" and Bob Dylan's "Every Grain of Sand" after Kristofferson sang his original composition "A Moment of Forever."

Kristofferson said that "John once accused me of having written 'The Pilgrim Chapter 33' about him," and although he didn't explicitly confirm or deny that the "walking contradiction/partly truth, partly fiction" song was about Cash, he did describe his loved mentor in contradictory terms as "deeply spiritual," "something of a holy terror," and "Abraham Lincoln with a wild side." (The presidential theme clearly resonated with Kristofferson as much as the boxing one, since he'd told me days earlier that touring with Cash as part of the country supergroup the Highwaymen "was like finding yourself on Mount Rushmore every night.")

Family members waxed and waned between irreverent and divine. "I'm pretty sure I represent the longest list of ex-son-in-laws ever [from] one family on this planet," joked Rodney Crowell. He recalled going down to Johnny and June's second home in Jamaica, back when he thought he was a "world-class bad boy," expecting to share a bed with then-fiancee Rosanne Cash. Although "his social politics were liberal and forgiving," Crowell quickly learned that his future father-in-law had his conservative side, as Cash reacted to the presumed sleeping arrangement by saying, "Son, I don't know you well enough to miss you if you're gone."

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"I know he's up there with Mama," said Carlene Carter. "She's got cheesecake in one hand and a charge card in the other. And he's an Indian," she said, referring to her stepfather's lifelong fascination with Native Americans. Rosanne, who never quite took to her parents' strong Christian convictions, called her father "a Baptist with the soul of a mystic … who was more alive to the subtleties of this world and worlds beyond than anyone I've known or even heard of." Concerning the afterlife, she ended her eulogy on a hopefully agnostic note: "The best thing I can wish for him now is that all his beliefs are coming true."

It was a typical Tennessee funeral really only in one way, in that it featured a lengthy fire-and-brimstone sermon by a preacher who barely knew the late honoree. Although Al Gore and some family members had invoked Jesus Christ during the funeral, evangelist Franklin Graham really laid into the salvation theme, after a brief introduction in which he talked about being introduced to Cash as a kid by his father, Billy. Not all of the show-business types at the funeral were impressed by Graham giving such an altar call of a eulogy, but inasmuch as Cash was a traditionalist, he might have enjoyed the younger Graham carrying on that time-honored custom of boilerplate evangelism, however impersonal it felt in regard to the decedent.

Tagging along with a family friend, I joined the small procession of cars taking a few dozen people out to the Hendersonville Memory Gardens. Along the way, the road was lined with mourners who presumably had heard the funeral was closed and figured this was as close as they'd get to country music's most beloved figure. I remember in particular one young man standing by the side of the boulevard, guitar at his feet, an arrow sign pointed toward heaven raised above his head. You know what color he was wearing.

At the grave site, a nephew spoke and imagined that Johnny's first impulse upon arriving in heaven would be to run and look for his older brother Jack, who -- as anyone who saw Walk the Line knows -- died after a childhood accident involving a cotton machine. But no, the nephew corrected himself: Cash would run to meet his maker first, then his long-lost brother. The casket was lowered into the ground, topped by agapanthus, spray orchids, and -- in honor of the tragic Johnny/Jack connection -- cotton boughs. Before departing, the two or three dozen assembled sang the national anthem of country funerals: "Will the Circle Be Unbroken."

The sad answer to that hymn's rhetorical question hung in the air: On earth, not as in heaven, the circle of country greatness had been irretrievably snapped, soon to be replaced by studly young hunks who would sing songs called "Johnny Cash" without a moment's thought as to what combination of attitudes a tune with that title ought to signify. Ten years later, as the Dixie Chicks prophetically sang, "They got money, but they don't have Cash." Now, as then, we remain … hurt.

We listen to the radio to hear what's cookin'

But the music ain't got no soul

Now they sound tired but they don't sound Haggard

They got money but they don't have Cash

Twitter: @ChrisWillman