Johnny Cash Carries On

By Brian Mansfield, Special for USA TODAY

Just an hour before he was to sing Folsom Prison Blues at his own tribute
concert last week, Johnny Cash wasn't sure he could do it.


Johnny and June: Johnny has spent the past 19 months recuperating with
support of wife June Carter Cash (By Robert Deutsch, USA TODAY). 
"It had been 19 months," says the 67-year-old singer, who hadn't
performed publicly since being diagnosed with a nervous disorder that has
weakened him, destabilized his blood pressure and nearly taken his life.

"Even walking down the stairs to go to the stage when I was going on, I
had my doubts about myself, if I could pull it off," Cash says, "because
Folsom Prison Blues takes a lot of energy. I didn't know if I had that
energy or not.

"As it turned out, I did. I had more than enough. If they had scheduled
more songs for me, I probably would've sung them."

Though he appeared grayer and frailer than he did at his last concert, in
October 1997, when he nearly fell over while reaching for a pick, the Man
in Black's commanding baritone still resonated through New York City's
Hammerstein Ballroom. He sang Folsom Prison Blues, then led an all-star
chorus that included Sheryl Crow, Dave Matthews, the Fugees' Wyclef Jean
and Cash's wife, June Carter Cash, through I Walk the Line.

TNT taped the concert, which included performances by Willie Nelson, Kris
Kristofferson, Brooks & Dunn, Trisha Yearwood, Chris Isaak and others,
for a two-hour special called The All-Star Tribute to Johnny Cash, airing
Sunday at 8 p.m. ET/PT.

After making his unannounced appearance, Cash says: "I had to go to the
dressing room and lay down on June's shoulder. I made it OK; after a few
minutes I got back up on my feet and started seeing people and talking to
people and everything was all right.

"But I had my doubts, because whatever this disease is █ I've denied that
I've even got it █ it weakens you."

In his first interview since being diagnosed with a progressively
degenerative condition, Cash says: "I've made it a point to forget the
name of the disease and not to give it any space in my life because I
just can't do it. I can't think that negatively. I can't believe I'm
going to be incapacitated. I won't believe that."

Cash has loomed large over America's cultural landscape during his
five-decade career, willfully ignoring musical, social and political
boundaries. The breadth of his impact is reflected in the stylistic
diversity of the TNT special, which includes country (Emmylou Harris),
hip-hop (Jean) and rock (Bob Dylan).

"I never saw him look so good in my life," Cash says of Dylan's
videotaped performance of Cash's 1956 hit Train of Love. "He talked good,
he was dressed well, his hair looked good, and he looked like the old Bob
Dylan of 30 years ago."

Cash also gives high praise to recorded tributes from U2 and Bruce
Springsteen. "Bruce Springsteen sang a song of mine called Give My Love
to Rose," Cash says. "I sent Bruce a fax and thanked him for bringing
that 40-some-year-old song up out of a rut and making it shine."

Fellow performers aren't the only ones who've honored Cash during his
illness. His Unchained album won the 1997 Grammy for best country album,
and he was awarded a lifetime achievement Grammy this year. His 1963 hit
Ring of Fire was added to the National Academy of Recording Arts &
Sciences Grammy Hall of Fame. Several record labels have released
compilations and reissues of his music the past two years, with more on
the way █ among them a themed series featuring collections of murder
ballads, prison tunes and love songs and an expanded version of his
landmark 1968 album, Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison.

Cash, though, has spent most of the past 19 months recuperating either at
his home in Montego Bay, Jamaica, or at his estate north of Nashville.
He's been hospitalized several times, once spending 12 days in a coma.
Doctors have struggled to find the right medication levels to treat the
symptoms of the disorder, called Shy-Drager syndrome.

Shy-Drager syndrome
is rare but ravaging
Shy-Drager syndrome is a rare neurological disorder that affects one out
of 10,000 people, mainly between the ages of 50 and 70. It causes
progressive failure of the nervous system, including a part that controls
key body functions, such as heart rate, blood pressure, sweating, and
bowel and bladder control. Its cause is not known, but the symptoms,
which are often confused with those of Parkinson's disease, develop as a
result of damage to nerve cells in the spinal column. Some people
experience mild symptoms for years; others get worse quickly. There is no
cure. Treatment focuses on controlling the symptoms. For example, drugs
might be given to counter the low blood pressure or movement
Symptoms of syndrome:

Dizziness or fainting spells
Lack of sweat, tears or saliva
Bowel or bladder problems
Blurry or poor eyesight
Walking or movement difficulties
Muscle aches
Shaking or tremors
Voice or speech changes
Difficulty swallowing
Trouble with fine motor skills
Decline in intellectual function

More information is available from the National Organization for Rare
Disorders, 800-999-6673 or
"When you get up from a chair, your blood pressure can drop 40 or 50
points, and you keel over," says Lou Robin, Cash's manager. "Then when
you lie down, your blood pressure can go up 40 to 50 points."

Shy-Drager, which often resembles Parkinson's Disease, can cause tremors,
impaired speech and blackouts. Cash's symptoms haven't been that severe,
Robin says. His case has been characterized by general weakness, spikes
in his blood pressure and a susceptibility to pneumonia.

"It's progressive," Robin says, "so it's really a matter of what you can
do to stem the progression."

Cash has tried to stay active throughout his illness. At the urging of
son John Carter Cash, he occasionally picks up a set of golf clubs █
something he once swore he'd never do. He also likes to take walks,
either outdoors or in shopping malls, with June.

"I make myself get up and go," Cash says. "I make myself get up, put on
my shoes and clothes, and go walking with her. If I find myself without
the strength to do it, we'll quit, and we'll go for a drive. But I won't
let myself go back to bed. Unless I absolutely have to, and that happens
too, you know."

Cash has relied heavily on his faith throughout the ordeal. He says he
identifies strongly with the Old Testament story of Job, a man who called
on God to justify himself after a series of tragedies.

"Yeah, Job and I, we're just like that," Cash says. "Except I haven't sat
in the ashes and scraped my sores yet. But I've felt like there were
pieces of me falling off as I walked along every once in a while. I think
a lot of people thought that, too. They'd see Johnny Cash walking, and
they'd see if there were any pieces of him falling off.

"I'm afraid to argue with God like Job did. But I do challenge him. We've
got a right to do that. He said, 'Let us reason together.' And I reason
with him. Sometimes the conversation gets a little heated."

The April 6 performance seems to have energized Cash. "I have no plans to
go back on the road, as such, but I'm far from retiring," he says.

He spent Tuesday in his log-cabin studio with his son. He's been
listening to music by the likes of Steve Earle, John Prine, the Del
McCoury Band and ex-son-in-law Rodney Crowell, all the while compiling a
long list of songs he'd like to record.

"I haven't been motivated to write songs," Cash says. "I've looked at
lists of songs; I've looked at lyrics; I've looked at books of songs; and
I've listened to songs, tapes, CDs and LPs that people have sent me. I've
marked them carefully and kept my list. I've got some really good songs
that I feel very, very optimistic about. And the couple that I'm writing
I feel very optimistic about."

Cash has set aside time to begin recording with Rick Rubin, who produced
his last two albums. He plans to record in Tennessee, California and a
cathedral, where he'll sing spirituals accompanied by the church's organ.
This week, he'll finish recording some 400 Scripture passages for
Franklin's Speaking Holy Bible, an electronic device that will come out
in July.

Like the condemned man in Folsom Prison Blues who hears the promise of
freedom in a distant train's lonesome whistle, Cash refuses to allow his
soul to be confined by a body that's betraying him.

"I deny the disease," he says. "I have to. All those horrible things have
not happened to me, thank God. But if everything I hear about happened to
me, you know, I might as well give up. But I'm not going to give up."