HILTONS, VA (July 11, 2003) - -The black Mercedes rolled slowly through the old pasture field to a stop opposite the side door of what from all outward appearances was nothing more than a cattle shed located on the side of the mountainous Hiltons,Va .
About 70 of the 700 +/- people inside and out stood and started cheering. The others didn’t have a clue what was going on at first. Then the doors opened, a wheelchair set up and two strapping fellows lifted the Man in Black - Johnny Cash - out of the car. By then, the whole crowd realized 'a country music legend' had arrived. Screams and applause echoed across the valley.
Johnny Cash had arrived for an unannounced appearance at the regular Saturday night country music show at Carter’s Fold, a rustic shed-like venue that is the real birthplace of country music - the home of the legendary Carter family.
There was no ramp up the stage, so he had to be carried on stage, his wheelchair brought up, and he was rolled to center stage where a single straight-backed chair had been set up in front of a chest-level microphone. The two men slowly lifted him from the wheelchair to the chair where he was given his guitar and a bottle of cold water.
Looking out at the incredible crowd that had trekked to Hiltons, for the weekly show in the temple of country music, he said: "Hi. I’m Johnny Cash" in his deep, gravely voice as the crowd, about 400 inside the shed - with its wooden wall panels propped open for ventilation against the stifling 100+ degree temperature inside - and another 300 or so crowded around on the hillside looking in, went wild.
Everyone with a camera crowded around the stage for pictures of one of country music’s historical living legends as Cash said, "Jerry," to his sideman, who immediately strummed the first familiar cords of "Folsom Prison."
Partially incapacitated by a degenerative nerve disease and suffering from laryngitis and hoarseness, Cash told the worshipful cheering fans if they could put up with his problems, he’d do the best he could to entertain them.
He then launched into a 30-minute show - a trip down memory lane for him of fonder days when his beloved June was alive and his soul mate - for the sweating crowd: "Ring of Fire," written by June; "Sunday Morning Coming Down," "Angel Band," sung at June’s funeral May 19 by Emmylou Harris with Sheryl Crow doing harmony; and "Big River."
"I’m going to do a song for you tonight that I haven’t performed in public in 25 years. It was "Stand by your man."
But most of the crowd was just plain country folk who love ‘real’ country music as presented at Carter’s Fold. And they got a real treat being there as the ailing Man in Black came to the High Church of his music’s historical homeland to thank them for a lifetime of support and connect with the fond memories of his wife’s roots.
While some had been ‘tipped’ "Johnny Cash ‘might be coming,’ not even the featured band for the night, The Bluegrass Tradition, knew in advance of Cash’s planned appearance, but one of them was honored to join Cash in singing "Angel Band."
After his 30-minute performance - nonstop except for swigging water after each song and a few personal remembrances of June - Cash was helped back into his wheelchair, carried back down to the dance floor, and then rolled to the waiting car. Despite being surrounded by adoring fans, not one asked for an autograph or tried to shake his hand - though several spoke to him and he to them as he left.