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Living legend Cash delivers

Published Oct. 10, 2005

"Johnny will be right out," the little man with the clipboard said as he poked his head outside Dressing Room A. "Now remember, he can only give you about five minutes."

It was 3:21 p.m. Thursday. The Johnny Cash, June Carter and the Carter Family Show was scheduled to start in nine minutes.

Outside Entertainment Hall, a gray, unassuming building on the Florida State Fairgrounds, the line at the door had been six or seven people deep in places and had snaked halfway around the building, almost to the bungee jumping crane.

Now they were inside. All 5,000 seats were taken. Comedian Les McDowell, a traffic reporter from radio station WQYK, was warming up the crowd with some jokes.

The dressing room door opened and he stepped outside.

He reminds you of a photo of Abraham Lincoln in his later years. He has a presence about him, but he also looks tired and worn. Like he's been down one too many highways.

His silver and black hair was brushed back, and he was wearing what he always does _ black coat, black pants, black shirt, black boots. A silver conchos was hung around his neck, and a hearing aid was carefully tucked in his right ear. His face was weathered. His eyes were red.

He moved closer to the steps that led to the stage. A few handshakes. A few pictures with some people from the fair.

Suddenly, the hand came forward. The voice was deep and slow and unmistakable.

"How are you doing?"

There was only a moment for small talk. He was reminded he has a birthday coming up _ that he'll be 60 years old on Feb. 26.

"Yeah," he said with a grin, "I'll be eligible for the old geezers club, they say."

To make sure no one took that seriously, he explained that he'll do about 110 shows this year, and that he just got back from Israel where he taped an Easter special for the Nashville Network. He'll work in Orlando on Friday night, Detroit Saturday night and Houston on Sunday. Then he'll start touring in Europe.

"No, I'm not thinking about slowing down," he said. "I guess I don't know any better. This is what I do, and as long as God gives me the strength to go on, I will."

Now, deeper questions. It is said that unlike pop music, country music doesn't throw away its stars. Older country musicians, people like Conway Twitty, George Jones, Tammy Wynette and Buck Owens, are still heroes, even if they haven't had a Top 20 hit in decades. Why?

"Country fans are extremely loyal," he said. "And I think the staying power of an artist is that if he has any measure of success, he continues to do the things that the fans pay him to do.

"Today, I'll probably sing Folsom Prison for the 14,000th time. But if the fans enjoy hearing it, I'll enjoy it just as much as they do.

"I don't stop singing the old ones just because I might get tired of them, you know? And I think that's the secret to success. You gotta give the fans what they want to hear."

Bob Dylan, a friend of his, was almost incomprehensible when he performed at last year's Grammy Awards show. He mumbled the words and seemed half asleep. And two weeks ago, when he sang with Cash's daughter, Rosanne, on David Letterman's 10th Anniversary Special, he was just as bad. Was it because Dylan wanted to show his contempt for the shows, or was there some other reason?

"I didn't see the show, but I've heard about it," Cash said. "All I know is that I saw Bob in New York the night after I was inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame (in January). He came to my hotel room and congratulated me. He was in good shape that night."

Speaking of Rosanne, she seems to be following in his footsteps in that she's her own artist. What does he think of where she's going with her music?

"Her last album was her best," he said. "Interiors was a concept album. The record companies are not too high on concept albums because they keep wanting that hit single to hang it on. That's one thing I did back in the late '50s and '60s. I did concept albums like Ride This Train because it was an expression of my artistry. What I wanted to say."

Does he miss the rockabilly days when he worked for Sun Records and recorded with such stars as Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Elvis?

"No, not really. We each had to go our separate ways. But those were some good times."

Someone is waving to him.

"Looks like I have to go," he said. "Thanks for coming."

He grabbed the railing, climbed the steps, stopped, and took a few deep breaths. And then he strolled out into the light.

Before he ended the first chorus of the opening number, Daddy Sang Bass, dozens of people flocked to the front of the stage to click their Kodak discs.

Then, in rapid succession, he dove into his other standards: Ring of Fire, Sunday Morning Coming Down, Don't Take Your Guns to Town, and, for 14,001st time, Folsom Prison.

In the wings, John Carter Cash was watching his father. In a few minutes, he would be out there performing several of his own songs.

"When he's up on that stage, he's getting as much enjoyment as he ever did," he said. "Right now, he's 30 years old."

He mentioned how proud his father is of the Grammy Legends award he got in 1990. And his induction into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame. And he said that while his father seems to sing a lot about people in trouble with the law, he was never accused of a felony, much less spent time in a prison.

"And he doesn't dye his hair, either," John Cash said. "That's his natural color.

"He does exactly what he wants to do," he added. "He's a living legend, but he's just another guy, you know? He's very shy, very humble. He was born on a farm in Arkansas during the Depression, and he never forgot where he came from."

And then the show was over.

Johnny Cash waved goodbye and walked off the stage. A black Greyhound bus _ JC 1 _ was idling behind the building.

Sweat was pouring down his face as he climbed down the stairs behind the stage.

"That went real good," he said.