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Stalked by illness, Johnny Cash fights back

Story by Jim Patterson

When Johnny Cash's rumbling version of the Neil Diamond classic "Solitary Man" won this year's Grammy award for Best Male Country Vocal Performance, the Man in Black was not on hand.

That night, Johnny had other things on his mind - he had just been released from Nashville's Baptist Hospital hours earlier. He had spent more than a week there, suffering from pneumonia. It was his fourth bout in three years. He nearly died of pneumonia after falling into a coma for 12 days in the fall of 1998, then was hospitalized again the following year.

The 69-year-old singer is susceptible to the disease because of autonomic neuropathy, a condition misdiagnosed as Shy-Drager syndrome a few years earlier. "It's kind of a disorder of the nervous system," Johnny explains. "But I'm not nervous. I don't feel that I have any disease."

Undoubtedly, though, his battles with pneumonia slowed his recording schedule - the constant coughing makes him hoarse and tightens his voice box. "It just really took a toll on me," he says.

To cope with his illness, Johnny has made changes in his lifestyle. He spends more time relaxing at home - he has one outside Nashville and another in Jamaica - and recording music at his own pace. But performing live, unfortunately, has become a thing of the past.

"I haven't taken any offers for television, live performances, commercials or any such thing for years," Cash says. "So long as we can keep the business going without all that, I'm very happy. I've had my 40-plus years on the stage."

Nonetheless, he won't rule out onscreen appearances. "I won't say I will not do any more television," he says. "Depends. A part in a movie? Depends. It has to be exactly right in my mind before I'll do it."

No matter what, music will always be his first priority. Johnny's most recent album, American III: Solitary Man, was met with great commercial and critical success and was recently nominated for the Academy of Country Music's Best Album honor.

"I guess that except for George Jones, I'm the oldest country artist on the charts," says Johnny. "That does make me feel very good."

Solitary Man finds Johnny touching on some subjects dear to him, including the death penalty on the song "Mercy Seat." The track was recorded as Johnny's home state of Tennessee staged its first execution in 40 years.

"The song does no more than call attention to the issue of the death penalty," he says. "And I won't make a stand either way on it. I just wanted to call attention to some of the heartfelt gut emotions that come along with it."

Johnny says he hopes "Mercy Seat" simply provokes listeners to think about the issue and come to their own conclusions. "I wouldn't be so presumptuous to say that my music can change the country," he says. "Not at all. It's about touching emotions and reaching people's hearts and guts."

While Johnny has been supportive of liberal causes in the past and has recorded politically charged songs such as "Man In Black," he refuses to explicitly support political candidates or parties.

"I did that once a few years ago, but I won't do it anymore," he says. "I've been around almost 50 years, and most of these politicians are there for four. So I don't feel like it's for me to say who I think the people should vote for."

Instead, Johnny wants to focus his energy on his music. His record label for the last eight years, American Recordings, remains very enthusiastic about his music. "I have a standing order for one album after another, unending," he says. "Until I'm not able to record anymore."

The singer becomes animated when talking about his next album, which he promises will be musically heavier than his sparse recent albums.

"I really don't care to be known as a folk singer," he notes. "I might use more instruments. There might be one or two with just my guitar, but there are some things we're finding that call for a little bigger sound."