Johnny Cash’s collection of No. 1 singles, Top 40 hits, and deep cuts rivals just about anyone who’s ever stepped foot in a recording studio. And for every Johnny Cash song—and there are hundreds—odds are there’s a fan who claims it as their favorite. From chart-toppers like “I Walk the Line” and “Ring of Fire” to “A Boy Named Sue” and “One Piece of a Time,” Cash’s catalog is an epic playlist for every occasion.
But what was the last song Johnny Cash ever performed live? It’s an intriguing piece of country music trivia. And it may surprise you. Because—while it was a No. 1 single for Johnny in 1964—it was a song he had not performed live in 25 years.
Let’s dig in, because on July 5, 2003—19 years ago today—Johnny, 71, performed live for the final time before his death about two months later on September 12, 2003.
Johnny Sets the Stage
Johnny Cash performed live for the final time on July 5, 2003, at the Carter Family Fold, which is a concert venue located near Hiltons, Virginia. The Fold was founded in 1979 by Janette Carter, the daughter of A.P. and Sara Carter.
Of course, the Carter Family trio—Mother Maybelle Carter, her brother-in-law A.P., and his wife Sara—made some of country music’s earliest commercial recordings, beginning with a 1927 session in Bristol, Tennessee. Bristol is about 25 miles from the Carter homestead in Hiltons. By 1943, Maybelle had teamed with her daughters—June, Helen, and Anita—to form Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters. And, of course, Johnny Cash and June Carter married in 1968, remaining so until June’s death on May 15, 2003.
Before Johnny’s final performance at the Carter Family Fold in 2003, he was introduced by Janette Carter. Johnny’s failing health was on full display as he was assisted from his wheelchair to his seat on the stage. But with his indomitable spirit, he greeted the audience as he had thousands of times before: “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.”
‘Understand Your Man’
Johnny opened his six-song set with “Folsom Prison Blues.” He followed with “I Walk the Line” and “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down.” Before he performed his next song, “Ring of Fire,” Johnny shared some heartfelt words about his late wife, June, who co-penned the song with Merle Kilgore in 1962.
“The spirit of June Carter overshadows me tonight with the love she had for me and the love I have for her,” Johnny Cash said. “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, and I love her with all my heart. I would like to do a song that she wrote that she was extremely proud of.”
Johnny followed up with “Angel Band,” before closing the show with his 1964 No. 1 hit, “Understand Your Man.”
“Here’s a song that I have not performed live on stage in 25 years,” said Johnny. “I’ve been getting a lot of requests for it. Here’s ‘Understand Your Man.'”
Two months later on September 12, Johnny died, succumbing to respiratory failure due to complications from diabetes. Watch Johnny’s final live performance below.