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But in autumn, when the air turns ice-cold, the neon-lined main street of "the biggest little town in the world" can also exude a bright, sad beauty, and it still seems like the best place on earth to see Johnny Cash perform. That's why, in November 1997, I made the trek to a casino called John Ascuaga's Nugget to see him. It was a pilgrimage, of sorts. A few days after his concert, Cash retired from show business, having been diagnosed (and, as it turned out, misdiagnosed) with Parkinson's disease, making that one of his last full-length performances. How fitting.
John Ascuaga's Nugget--they don't call it just The Nugget, since that name belongs to a 35-year-old weenie joint downtown--is a giant casino with seven horrid restaurants and a giant gnome carved into its front façade. The venue in which Cash performed, the misnamed "Rose Ballroom," was nothing but a large square room full of folding chairs and bleachers, with most of the seats occupied by patrons of John Ascuaga and his Nugget. Scattered among them were a few young alternakids and men in long black dusters, but most were older types, middle-aged couples in spangles and cowboy boots--me and Ma and Pa Kettle.
It was kind of like jury duty or traffic school, but despite the dissimilarities in our socio-demographic makeup, when Cash began to sing--and he opened with "Folsom Prison Blues," just to get the Reno line over with--we all rose up as one, cheering in our sincere admiration. His songs embody all the aspects of American culture that seem so pathetic when distilled into crowds milling about the casinos, but that, when made into art, become a more beautiful statement of human suffering and endeavor. That night, the 65-year-old Cash only sang about eight songs--among them "(Ghost) Riders in the Sky," "Sunday Morning Coming Down," "Ring of Fire," and "I Walk the Line"--before ceding the stage to his wife, June Carter Cash, their son John Carter Cash, and his stepdaughter Rosie Carter.
He performed a handful of duets with June, "If I Were a Carpenter" and "Jackson"; they also graced us with a sing-along rendition of "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," a song written by June's uncle--a fact most in the audience were certainly unaware of. That's a pity, because the truth is, both that song and June Carter are even more a crucial part of the development and preservation of American vernacular music than even Johnny Cash--by a long shot.
In the 1920s and '30s, June's mother, Maybelle, along with her Aunt Sara and Uncle Alvin Pleasant (better known only as A.P.), brought Appalachian folk music to the masses, recording first for Victor and later for immensely popular radio shows broadcast on sweeping 50,000-watt stations such as XERA in Del Rio, which could be heard all over the nation. After the Carter Family broke up, June and her sisters Helen and Anita accompanied their mother on tour as "Maybelle Carter and the Carter Sisters," as well as promoting products on the radio, singing, telling jokes, and appearing on small-town stages everywhere.
June Carter Cash has been a part of Johnny's show since 1961 and is responsible for co-writing some of her husband's best-known hits, including "Ring of Fire," among the more than 70 songs she has written or co-written in her career. On top of that, she's always a warm and funny presence on stage with him; if her husband's an icon, she makes everything around her seem a bit more real, more human.
Yet June actually seemed to be feeling a bit slighted at the Nugget. She made a few gentle jokes about being mistaken for Loretta Lynn by hotel patrons, and though she laughed about it, there was a sense that June Carter Cash would like, at long last, to be considered a somebody in her own right. She even sang one new song that admitted as much, "I Used to Be Somebody," and one can hardly fail to see her point. Whether she's considered a crucial member of a legendary family or an honorable songwriter, nobody deserves fame more.
That night, June Carter Cash talked about the forthcoming release of a solo album (her second, following 1975's Johnny Cash-produced Appalachian Pride), which was slated to follow in the wake of Johnny's crossover success with the Rick Rubin-produced American Recordings in 1994 and Unchained in '96. Both were sparse, rumbling, ferocious discs released on Rubin's American Recordings label that introduced John to an audience raised on Beck, Tom Waits, Nick Lowe, and Soundgarden--all of whom had their songs recorded by Cash. But it's been 18 months since that show, and June's album, Press On, has only just been released on Risk Records, a tiny label based out of Los Angeles.