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Celebrate Johnny Cash's 80th Birthday By Listening to His March '97 Show at the Majestic

Been saving this one for today: February 26, the day John R. Cash was born in Kingland, Arkansas in 1932. It's a keepsake from Cash's last-ever show in Dallas: March 15, 1997, at the Majestic Theatre, with June Carter Cash by his side. Johnny had hoped to hit the road months earlier to tour behind Unchained, his second record for Rick Rubin. But the docs told him: He was sick. They told him it was one thing, then another -- autonomic neuropathy the correct diagnosis. But, finally, for a while, he was good to go -- and straight back to work it was.

"It's so good to be here tonight, feeling so good and so young," he told the audience that night. "I gotta tell ya -- it's great to be here, working again after three months off." He ticked off the reasons: "operations, surgery, brand-new knee, all that stuff." But, he said, he was "walkin' pretty good on it tonight -- so far." Big laughs, bigger cheers. Then, a playful warning: "We've had no rehearsal. We've not rehearsed a thing." You'd never know it, listening to this vaguely in-the-distance but thoroughly enjoyable recording featuring a setlist that covered the early-days hits ("I Walk the Line," "Ring of Fire," "Jackson" with June), the praise-God hymns and the Tom Petty and Soundgarden covers that had reminded a younger generation of the then-65-year-old's vitality and relevance.

Cash and Dallas went way back -- all the way to the Sportatorium and the Big "D" Jamboree, where he played in '56, and that music survives too, an essential addition to your collection. Here's the contract, even, signed by Cash and Ed McLemore himself, for which The Man in Black took him very, very little green.

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Just seven months after this show Cash would be forced off the road for good; his health took a serious decline, and he would confine himself to the studio, where he continued making essential American recordings for Rubin. But on this night in downtown Dallas, Cash was as good, as mighty, as funny as ever; said he that night, the label was making him play Jay Leno's show, though he didn't want to -- "somethin' about his chin," he said, "I dunno." Big laughs for the big man.

I was fortunate enough to speak with Cash around this time, as he was wrapping the latest version of his autobiography and pondering the meaning of life -- especially after so many decades of being written off by major labels as one more pioneer who'd grown too old to be viable. Said he in '97:

"I believe in myself more than ever. There comes a time when nobody wants what you got so long you get to thinkin' nobody wants you at all. There was so much apathy on the part of my record company that I got that way, too -- I got very apathetic about recording. I would wonder, 'Well, what's the point if I go and record an album and they press 500 copies and that's it?' I mean, I don't need any more lessons in futility. If I sell a lot of records or not, it doesn't seem to make a lot of difference to the record company or Rick, because I'm doin' what I should be doin' -- and what I feel right doin'.

"I wake up with a new song every day. The song comes through me from 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 even 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."

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