Johnny Cash’s ‘Like the 309’: Story Behind the Last Song The Country Music Legend Wrote

by Halle Ames

Before Johnny Cash died in 2003, he wrote one last masterpiece for generations to come. The lyrics of “Like the 309” were the final ones Cash would ever write.

The song, released in 2006, takes listeners on a bumpy train ride. Painful lyrics paired with an upbeat rhythm deliver Johnny Cash fans to their final destination: a place of greater appreciation for the iconic country artist.

So, hop on board and discover the story of Johnny Cash’s last songwriting moments.

Johnny Cash Had ‘A Thing About Trains’

Since Cash was young, he had an infatuation with trains. His first song in 1955, “Hey Porter,” is about Cash’s train ride home and him speaking to a worker onboard. The lyrics in the first verse go as such.

“At daylight would you tell that engineer to slow it down. Or better still, just stop the train. ‘Cause I want to look around.”

Fast forward a few years to the 1960s, Cash released two albums, ‘Ride This Train’ and ‘All Aboard the Blue Train,’ about his beloved locomotives.

In addition, the iconic singer listed “railroads” as his second favorite thing to write about, behind “horses.” Also making the list of the top keywords he enjoyed writing about were, “land, judgment day, family, hard times, whiskey, courtship, marriage, adultery, separation, murder, war, prison, rambling, damnation, home, salvation, death, pride, humor, piety, rebellion, patriotism, larceny, determination, tragedy, rowdiness, heartbreak, and love. And Mother. And God.”

Not exactly a narrow list. In fact, Cash seemingly covers basically anything you could think to write about.

Johnny Cash After June’s Death

Cash called his producer, Rick Rubin, the day after his wife June died and told him if he didn’t keep busy, he was going to join her. Cash got to work and recorded 30 songs in four months.

The song, “Like the 309,” was released on July 4, 2006, three years after Cash’s death. It was the music legend’s last song in his 51-year career.

“Hey Porter” references a young man’s journey home to Tennessee. “Like the 309” is similar to Cash’s first song about a train ride, however, Cash talks about his death in the first verse.

“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.”

Cash sounds weathered as he references his coffin taking a train ride like the 309 is a grim reaper taking him to either heaven or hell.

Cash died at the age of 71 from complications with diabetes.

[H/T Vanity Fair]