On Johnny Cash’s Birthday, A Look Back At His Final Interview

Shortly before his death in 2003, the Man in Black talked about death, drugs, and hearing from fans.

The great country legend [artist id="330"]Johnny Cash[/artist] passed away in 2003, but his legacy remains alive. This week saw the release of American VI: Ain’t No Grave, which pulls together the last of the songs Cash recorded with superproducer Rick Rubin. And on Wednesday, Cash’s 1958 tune “Guess Things Happen That Way” became the 10 billionth song purchased from the iTunes Store . That milestone earned downloader Louie Sulcer a $10,000 iTunes Store gift card, as well as phone calls from Apple CEO Steve Jobs and Cash’s daughter Rosanne.

Today would have been the Man in Black’s 78th birthday, and in honor of the outlaw icon, we take a look back at MTV News’ conversation with Cash just a few weeks before his death in 2003.

Kurt Loder visited Cash’s sprawling estate in Tennessee and talked openly to the legend about his career, his music and — in very frank terms — about the prospect of death. The conversation would be Cash’s final interview. He never made it to 2003′s Video Music Awards, where he was nominated for six prizes for the clip for his cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt.”

Cash’s remarkable career renaissance was in large part thanks to Rubin, who stripped Cash’s sound down to its core parts and applied his wise, haunting, world-weary voice to a number of traditional standards and covers. The American albums grabbed the attention of stars like Kid Rock and Bono, put Cash back on the radio and introduced him to an entirely new generation of fans.

“I hear from a lot of fans,” Cash told Loder. “I appreciate all that — all the praise and the glory. It doesn’t change the way I feel about anything, though. I just do what I do.”

Johnny Cash released his first recordings for Sun Records in 1955 and was an integral part of both the country scene and the birth of rock and roll. Success came quickly, and he indulged in the rock and roll lifestyle. “There was a package of myself, Jerry Lee [Lewis], Roy Orbison and Carl Perkins,” he said. “We were all young and wild and crazy. As crazy as you can get. We discovered amphetamines — or I did, anyway. Jerry thought he was going to Hell for not preaching.

He went to seminary and wanted to be a preacher, but he turned to rock and roll. He would tell us all we were going to hell. I said, ‘Maybe you’re right, Killer. Maybe you’re right.’ ”

At the time of the interview, Cash was no stranger to death. In May 2003, his longtime wife and performing partner June Carter Cash passed away. But despite his failing health and loss of his life partner, Cash continued recording with Rubin. “She told me to go to work,” Cash told Loder. “Three days after the funeral, I was in the studio. Everybody thought I was crazy, but I was in the studio for two weeks. It was great therapy for me.”

A man of great faith, Cash knew that the end was coming, but he didn’t fear death and was comfortable with the idea of his own mortality. “I expect my life to end pretty soon. I’m 71 years old, but I have unshakeable faith,” he said. “I’ve never turned my back on God. I never thought that God wasn’t there. He’s my counselor, my wisdom — all the good things in my life come from him.”

When Loder asked, “Where do you think we go?” Cash knew right away. “We all hope to go to Heaven,” he told him.