Sick and consumed by grief after his wife’s death, Johnny Cash struggled to record his last songs and spoke regularly with the Rev. Billy Graham for comfort, according to a new family authorized biography.
“He would look at me, a couple of times with tears in his eyes, and he would say, ’I can hardly wait to see heaven, to see the Lord and to see our family,”’ Cash’s sister Joanne Yates tells author Steve Turner in his book, “The Man Called Cash: The Life, Love and Faith of an American Legend,” set for release Sept. 13.
Cash, country music’s “Man in Black,” died Sept. 12, 2003, of complications from diabetes, four months after the death of his wife, June Carter Cash, herself a member of a legendary musical family. He was 71, and she 73.
Several projects commemorating Cash and his music are in the works including the movie “Walk the Line” starring Joaquin Phoenix as Cash and Reese Witherspoon as June Carter. It’s planned for release next spring or summer.
Singer-songwriter Kris Kristofferson, a longtime Cash friend, wrote the foreword to Turner’s book, and Cash’s family and manager were involved as well.
“My father OK’d the book before he passed away,” his son, John Carter Cash, told The Associated Press. “Steve interviewed myself and all of my sisters. We all gave our hearts and were pretty open about our lives with our father.”
Cash has been the subject of other books, including his own autobiography, but his son said this one recounts his parents’ final days and adds new detail to earlier episodes of their lives. The AP saw an uncorrected proof of the book.
At times the story is sad, even difficult to read. While June Carter was in a coma on life support after complications from heart surgery, Cash visited her bedside in his wheelchair every 30 minutes or so, talking to her, singing her songs and reading her Psalms.
“He begged her not to leave him,” Turner wrote.
When doctors told the family there was no brain activity, that she was in an irreversible vegetive state, all eyes turned to Cash. He asked everyone in the family to join hands and pray.
“If anyone has anything to say to June,” he said, “you should say it now.”
Then he went to the intensive care unit and gave permission to end life support.
After her death, he was lonely and his frail condition worsened. Although he was going blind, he had his daughter Cindy Panetta bring him more photographs of June. He even had an artist paint her face on the elevator doors at his office.
“He missed her so bad,” Panetta told Turner. “He sobbed for her daily. He would pick up the phone to talk to her as if she was on the other end.”
Faith grew as body weakenedCash had been working on a new record when his wife fell ill. After she died he threw himself into the project.
“His voice would come and go. He never knew from one day to the next whether he was going to be able to sing. He was real weak,” recalled engineer David Ferguson. “He was in a wheelchair and sick, but whenever he could and whenever he felt like it he wanted to record because he really wanted to finish up that record.”
The album, called “American V,” is expected to be released this fall and is the latest installment in the “American Recordings” series Cash made in recent years with rock and rap producer Rick Rubin. The albums capture him singing traditional songs as well as contemporary rock songs and his own compositions, often in sparse arrangements. The albums were embraced by a new, younger audience.
Though Cash battled drug addiction for much of his life, he held strong Christian beliefs and often quoted the Bible. He was deeply sympathetic to the downtrodden — whether American Indians or convicts — and gave them voice in his songs.
His faith seemed to grow stronger as his body grew weaker, Turner wrote. In his final months, he had a light box that projected pages of the Bible onto a screen so he could read it. He also spoke regularly with Graham, “someone whom he’d always relied on as a rock to lean on in times of trouble,” Turner wrote.
“I think that’s the only way he made it,” his niece Kelly Hancock said. “I think he had the utmost faith in God and he looked to God for his faith and direction.”
As late as Aug. 14, he was in the studio working on a humorous song called “Asthma Coming Down Like the 309” and another song called “1 Corinthians 15:55” (Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?).
His last song, “Engine 143,” was recorded Aug. 21 about an engineer rushing to get to the station on time. He crashes the train and dies, and the song ends with the words, “And the very last words poor Georgie said were, ’Nearer my God to thee.”’
John Carter Cash, 34, said his father never lost his will to live, despite his loneliness. He was excited about the seven nominations his video for the song “Hurt” received at the MTV music awards, held a couple of weeks before his death.
“He never stopped. He never really gave up,” his son said. “It wasn’t his spirit that gave up, it was his body.
“He was almost like Peter was to Christ,” he continued. “God probably shook his head and said ’Oh, my goodness’ many times in dealing with my father. But what God saw in my father was that he was a rock, a foundation in a lot of ways — someone people could relate to who could shine strong and was not afraid to reveal himself. I think he was a great role model to many people in that way. He fell, but always got back up.”