The last days of Johnny Cash 

When Johnny Cash married June Carter in 1968 shortly after proposing to her onstage in Ontario he wed himself not only to his steadfast guardian angel, not only to the disarmingly attractive and intelligent woman who co-wrote the country standards "Ring of Fire" and "Kneeling Drunkard's Plea," and not only, as his daughter Rosanne Cash noted, to the grand tradition to which she was heiress; he also married himself to her unwavering faith. It would be tested. "I spoke to Johnny maybe a half-hour or an hour after [June] passed away," Rick Rubin said, recalling the severe pain Cash suffered upon the death of his wife in 2003, just months before his own death, "and he sounded, by far, the worst I'd ever heard him. He sounded terrible. He said that he'd experienced so much pain in his life and that nothing came anywhere near to how he was feeling at that moment." When Rubin asked whether Cash would be able to find some sliver of faith inside him still, Cash "became a different person. He went from this meek, shaky voice to a strong, powerful voice, and he said, 'my faith is unshakable!'"

Though it was unexpected that June Carter would die before her husband who had been so famously ailing and recovering for so many years, it now seems inevitable that in his very last recordings Cash would be left in irreconcilable solitude, left alone with his past and his work, that he would not be able to pin all of his earthly redemption on the woman who, under the unceasing pressure, herself finally broke. The unwavering faith that Cash asserted so strongly when talking to Rubin signified a fidelity to June's memory that it seems Cash was not often able to maintain when June was alive, despite the public fable to the contrary (there is a reason why the movie didn't wade too far into their marriage). If many of Cash's songs attesting to his love for his wife and family had a disappointing schmaltz about them, a sort of patriarchal sanctity and repose, then the songs he sang after June's final departure—most especially his cover of Hank Williams' "On the Evening Train" on "American V" — captured all the stoic longing and loss that permeate his finest recordings. But prior to June's death, and aside from the fiery duet "Jackson" that they recorded before they were even married, the domestic songs Cash wrote and recorded for "American Recordings" were about as good as he got on the topic.

A modest composition, "Like a Soldier" gestures backwards at Cash's great trials and misadventures. "The wild road I was ramblin,'" he sings, "was always out there callin'/and you said a hundred times I should have died." Cash was drawn to images that resonated with his seeming domestic happiness, famous past wildness and sung history all at once; it is as though the mature Cash's artistic struggle was to find ways to sing of home without having to hang up his spurs and tie on an apron, to pull his emblematic self indoors and into the proximity of other selves without extinguishing all of its lonesome strength. Perhaps this is why the late Cash kept dredging up his lawless past, tying it to his present tameness by claiming that the wild road was the one that brought him to June. In the liner notes to "Unchained," Cash recalled how he and the Tennessee Three had pushed June too far while out on tour and she lashed back, disciplining them. "So beginning that night, she began the long, slow process of trying to tame me, and how sweet it was," Cash wrote. "But that streak was hard to get me off of." In "Like a Soldier," that wild streak reveals itself as the war, the lawless ways and the crazy days he no longer had to live up to, but: "Sometimes at night," Cash also wrote in those liner notes, quoting the lyrics of a Bob McDill song he once recorded with compadre Waylon Jennings, "when I hear the wind, I wish I was crazy again."


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