"Hello," the man said in his familiar baritone. "I'm Johnny Cash."
He was clad from head to toe in his signature black, and his unruly white hair looked as if it were fleeing from his rugged, lined face, like cotton spilling out of a wrinkled paper bag. He was usually sharp and focused with a guitar in his hands and a microphone in front of his face. But as he eased into his first song, "Folsom Prison Blues," he looked confused and tentative, as if he'd just been roused from a yearlong nap by a baseball bat cracked against his skull. Describing his appearance as "a shell of his former self" would be giving him too much credit. The end loomed near, his musical obit nearly complete. It was sad, like watching the once-fluid Muhammad Ali stumble to put a few words together.
Then, a small wonder occurred. Capping off the TNT network's An All-Star Tribute to Johnny Cash in April 1999 -- following appearances by Willie Nelson, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, U2 and others -- Cash's surprise performance was a bittersweet homecoming at first, going back to the house you grew up in only to find its paint chipped and faded, its walls rotting. But as he led his former backing group through "Folsom Prison Blues," and continued into "Ring of Fire" and "I Walk the Line," Cash's voice steadied, his signature gaze returned -- the look his wife, June Carter Cash, once described as "black eyes that shone like agates." All of a sudden, he was alive again.
"My first time onstage in 19 months," he said after finishing his short set. "It feels good, it feels good, it feels good."
Fifteen months later, the good feeling remains: Cash is working on his first album in four years (his long-awaited yet unexpected follow-up to 1996's Unchained), and even plans on playing a handful of shows when the disc is released later this year. The gig at the Hammerstein Ballroom appears to have rejuvenated him; his doctors are taking a "more positive approach to his illness than they used to," according to his manager Lou Robbin. Though it seemed as if Cash's recording and performing careers were over two years ago, his third album with producer Rick Rubin (following Unchained and 1994's don't-call-it-a-comeback American Recordings) should be wrapped up in the next few months. Cash's life can't be separated from his music, and he wouldn't want it to be. As long as he's alive, he's making music.
"I wake up with a new song every day," Cash told New Times in a 1997 interview. "The song comes from me somewhere. I woke up yesterday singin', "A penny a kiss/A penny a hug/Gonna save my pennies in a big brown jug' -- a song from 1949. Just this mornin' it was "Lucky Old Sun.' I mean, these songs keep comin' through me, recyclin' through my brain. There's no gettin' away from the music if I wanted to. It's there. It's part of me. I go to sleep with a song on my mind every night, and it might be a song I don't especially like. I never thought about bein' without it. I couldn't imagine not havin' music. I can't imagine bein' alive and not havin' a song in my head."
Which makes now a perfect time to reexamine Cash's past -- he has a future again. Columbia Legacy, the reissue arm of Columbia Records, began the process last year with the release of an expanded, uncensored and remastered version of his classic live album, 1968's At Folsom Prison. Cash's 1969 back-in-the-joint disc Live at San Quentin has received the same treatment and was released along with a clutch of other "American Milestone" reissues of classic country albums this week. But the biggest part of Columbia Legacy's repackaging plan is a three-disc box entitled Love, God, Murder. Also available as three separate albums, the set is arranged thematically (love songs, hymns and murder ballads), with a track listing hand-picked by Cash himself, and essays by June Carter Cash (Love), U2's Bono (God), and director Quentin Tarantino (Murder). Bono, who met Cash when they collaborated on "The Wanderer" (a track off U2's 1993 album Zooropa), hasn't known him long but understands his appeal as well as anyone.