Chris Willman
September 26, 2003 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Johnny Cash’s soul had been the battlefield for plenty of celebrated skirmishes over the decades. Usually, the inner conflict was as clear-cut as his near-mythic stature in country music: drugs or sobriety, rage or peace, God or the other guy. But for four months this year, another war waged, this one with no clear or preferable victor. On one side was his overwhelming lust for life, even when pain and glaucoma literally clouded his senses. And on the opposing team, his devotion to June Carter Cash, from whom he’d been torn asunder in May. For probably the first time since they wed in 1968, he allowed himself, briefly, to resist her pull.

The frail country-music icon astonished friends and colleagues with his work ethic shortly after June’s passing: Between hospitalizations, he recorded an astonishing 40 to 50 songs for an album he planned to finish up in L.A. in September. ”He was working at finding a reason to get out of bed,” Kris Kristofferson says of his good friend’s last burst of prolific energy. But inveterate fighter that he was, Cash couldn’t keep diabetes and perhaps, yes, grief, from taking their toll, and he joined his bride early on the morning of Sept. 12, putting a cap on the 20th century’s most enduring show-business romance.

At a private funeral three days later at the First Baptist Church of Hendersonville, Tenn., a few miles from the couple’s longtime lakeside home, friends and family filed into a church as the pianist turned ”I Walk the Line” into a sweet Southern gospel hymn. Cash’s body lay in an open casket, dressed in his uniform of solemn black and string tie. Kristofferson eulogized Cash as ”a deeply spiritual man” and ”also something of a holy terror…Abraham Lincoln with a wild side.” Emmylou Harris sang ”The Old Rugged Cross,” joined on harmonies by Sheryl Crow, who took over the lead on Bob Dylan’s most moving spiritual, ”Every Grain of Sand.” Evangelist Franklin Graham read a message from his ailing father, Billy, who confessed that he’d befriended the Cashes in the late ’60s in hopes of earning the respect of Franklin, who was always singing ”A Boy Named Sue.”

Al Gore, Cash’s former congressman and longtime friend, said that you’d never find Cash singing the self-aggrandizing ”My Way”: ”No, he had a lot of regrets, and he mentioned them all.” Carlene Carter, Cash’s stepdaughter, closed her remembrance with the thought that ”he’s up there with Mama. She’s got cheesecake in one hand and a charge card in the other. And he’s an Indian.” Brother Tommy recalled catching Johnny in the locker room at a university gig, looking for the most worn-out sneakers he could find, so that he could anonymously slip a $100 bill inside. And finally, there was Rosanne, offering the best remembrance any entertainer could hope for and that few probably deserve: As a human being, she said, ”he was already great. The music just came out of it.”

The funeral procession traveled down Hendersonville’s Johnny Cash Parkway, passing a young man dressed in black, a guitar at his feet, holding up a sign with an arrow pointing toward heaven. At the graveside, a nephew imagined that his uncle’s first impulse in the afterlife would be to look for his older brother Jack, who died at age 14 after falling into a circular saw on a cotton farm, but that he would stop himself and meet God first. The mourners sang ”Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and then left behind a casket festooned with agapanthus, spray orchids, and…cotton boughs.

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