On This Day: Johnny Cash Performs Live for the Final Time in 2003

by Jim Casey
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Johnny Cash performed live for the last time on July 5, 2003, at the Carter Family Fold near Hiltons, Virginia. Johnny’s final 30-minute set included renditions of “Folsom Prison Blues,” “I Walk the Line,” “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down,” “Ring of Fire,” “Angel Band,” “Big River,” and “Understand Your Man.”

Johnny’s unofficial farewell took place two months after his loving wife of 35 years, June Carter Cash, passed away on May 15. Two months later on September 12, Johnny died, succumbing to respiratory failure due to complications from diabetes.

Carter-Cash Connection

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 was 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. They joined Johnny Cash’s touring troupe in 1961. June and Johnny got married in 1968.

Before Johnny’s final performance at the Carter Family Fold in 2003, he was introduced by Janette Carter. She was the daughter of A.P and Sara—and one of the founders of the Carter Family Fold concert venue. Johnny’s failing health was on full display as he was assisted from his wheelchair to center-stage. But with his indomitable spirit, he greeted the audience as he had thousands of times before: “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.”

Johnny’s Final Set

Johnny opened his set with “Folsom Prison Blues.” He followed with “I Walk the Line” and “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down.”

Before he performed “Ring of Fire,” Johnny shared some touching words about his late wife. Of course, June co-penned “Ring of Fire” 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.”

After “Ring of Fire,” Johnny performed “Angel Band,” a classic song recorded by a number of artists, including the Stanley Brothers. Johnny noted that June, prior to her death, requested the song be performed at her funeral by Emmylou Harris.

Johnny followed with his 1958 Top 5 hit, “Big River,” before closing the show with “Understand Your Man,” a song he had not performed live in 25 years.

Watch the Man in Black’s final performance of “Understand Your Man” below.

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