Like the traditional music that it features each Saturday night, the Carter Family Fold sprouts straight out of Clinch Mountain. This concert hall in tiny Hiltons, Virginia, in the southwest tip of the state, is open on three sides and covered by a tin roof. The most comfortable seats in the house—the ones with backs—are old school bus seats, duct-taped together to prevent further tearing and placed next to each other in rows in the middle section. Some of these seats join together unevenly, situating audience members three inches or so higher than the people next to them. The side sections have wooden benches, stapled over with squares of carpet remnants, narrow patchwork quilts intended to cushion sitting for the night’s entertainment.
When the place is filled to capacity, audience members spill over onto Clinch Mountain’s steeply sloping grassy foothills. If they’re regulars, they remember to bring their own lawn chairs for this area; otherwise, they sit on the ground. The sightlines are not good from that vantage point, but the music still carries back to the farthest row. On a good night, with the right bluegrass band and a crowd itching to get the flatfoot dancing started, the Fold usually holds somewhere around 800 people.
On June 21, 1,600 people crammed together there to hear a widowed Johnny Cash sing for his wife. He could have played Titans Stadium outside Nashville and charged $50 a ticket or $200 for gold-level seats. That night at the Fold, I paid $5 to see him. Two months before his death, in one of his last public appearances, Johnny performed as he lived so much of his life, surrounded by family and friends and humbly offering his gifts before his audience and his God.
"HE INSISTED ON walking into the Fold that night," Hiltons resident Pat Jones told me a week after Johnny’s performance. "They wanted to bring him in using a wheelchair, but he said no, he wanted to walk up to that stage himself."
Along with her husband, Bill, Pat Jones owns the Shell station, one of two gas stations in Hiltons. They’re also farmers, growing tomatoes and green beans. Like Johnny’s wife, June Carter, Pat grew up in Poor Valley, the expanse of rocky land just below Clinch Mountain that contains Hiltons. This valley produced the Carter Family—June’s aunt and uncle, Sara and A.P., and her mother, Maybelle. Their early recordings of "hillbilly" music—songs and spirituals gathered from around the mountain—formed a foundation of country music.
June never lived full-time in Poor Valley past childhood, but she and Johnny stayed several weeks each summer in Hiltons. When they were in town on a Saturday night, they would play a half-hour set at the Carter Fold, which June’s cousins Janette and Joe Carter—A.P. and Sara’s children—built and opened in 1979 to honor a promise that Janette made to her father to keep the family’s music alive. Johnny was the only artist Janette allowed to use electric guitars at the Fold, on the grounds that he was already "plugged in" when he married into the family.
In recent years, these shows became even more significant as Johnny and June’s public appearances became increasingly rare. After their performance, Johnny and June would sit in the audience and listen to the headlining band. Usually they could listen uninterrupted, though some nights autograph seekers made that impossible. Those people were generally tourists come to the Fold for the night. Locals knew better.
"We tried not to bother them, to give them some peace," Pat says. "When they were in town, I’d bring a mess of tomatoes up to the house. But I’d only stay five minutes or so, just to say hello, especially after Johnny had gotten so sick. That June, though—she always gave me a great big hug and thanked me."
THE OVATION BEGAN with those closest to the entrance that had been blocked off for his arrival. As the wave rippled across the audience, people took to their feet when Johnny emerged from his car, before he even stepped foot inside the Carter Fold and well before he sang a note.
Dressed head to toe, naturally, in black, he did indeed walk through the doors, slowly and propped up by two assistants. John Carter Cash, his only son, supported him from behind. The crowd parted, and he stopped and rested a few moments before attempting the three stairs that led to the small wooden stage. His body was frail, but his face still evoked the authority of an Old Testament prophet. He smiled bashfully at the thunderous reception.
Bursts of applause greeted each point of this 10-minute journey and reached a crescendo at the familiar opening notes of his first song, "Folsom Prison Blues." Although the backs of his hands appeared darkly bruised, Johnny played an acoustic guitar, as did his son. The wild greeting continued with his next number, "Sunday Morning Coming Down." Cries of "We love you, Johnny!" broke through the cheers.
Then he spoke to the crowd. "I don’t really know what to say about how I feel tonight, being up here without her."
He placed only the slightest emphasis on that last word. The place fell silent for the first time that evening. Johnny sighed, his chest rising and falling slowly as he looked down at the guitar he quietly strummed. "June and I were together 40 years, and the pain is so severe, there’s no describing it. You lose your mate, the one you’ve been with all those years, and I guarantee you it’s the big one. It hurts so bad...it really hurts."
He thrummed the guitar again, two or three times. The ceiling fans clattered overhead.
"But every day the last week or so, it seems to be getting a little bit better, knowing that I was coming up to celebrate her birthday and the excitement of all that. Coming to her old homeplace here on the banks of Clinch Mountain, where we spent so much time and had so much love for each other. I just wish I could share it with you, how we felt about each other." He stared unseeingly down at the stage for a moment, then looked again toward his audience.
"I’d like to do a song that is a kind of tribute to June. She loved this valley, she loved Janette and Joe, and all these people. All you people.
"This is for June. I know you’re here tonight, baby."
Johnny closed his eyes and, in a prayerful tone carrying a hint of a tremor, sang to his wife. The words foreshadowed the journey he would soon take himself.
My latest sun is sinking fast
The race is almost run
My strongest trials now are past
The triumph has begun
Oh, come, angel band
Come and around me stand
Oh, bear me away
On your snow white wings
To my immortal home.
Kimberly Burge, a Sojourners contributing writer, is senior writer and editor for Bread for the World.