The Full Circle Story Behind Johnny Cash’s Final Song “Like the 309”

In 1997, Johnny Cash was diagnosed with the neurodegenerative disease Shy–Drager syndrome, a form of multiple system atrophy. Shortly after his diagnosis, Cash retired from touring. Though his health would continue to deteriorate over the next few years, Cash remained active recording in the studio.

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Working with producer Rick Rubin, Cash released two more albums within his lifetime, including American III: Solitary Man in 2000 and his 67th and final release in 2002, American IV: The Man Comes Around, featuring Don Henley, Nick Cave, and Fiona Apple, and a number of covers, including his stirring rendition of Nine Inch Nails‘ “Hurt.”

In May 2003, Cash called Rubin the day after his wife of 35 years June Carter died and asked the producer to work on some final songs with him. Cash recorded 30 songs within four months.

“When June died, it tore him up,” Rubin told Q in 2009. “He said to me, ‘You have to keep me working because I will die if I don’t have something to do.’ He was in a wheelchair by then and we set him up at his home in Virginia. I couldn’t listen to those recordings for two years after he died, and it was heartbreaking when we did.”

[RELATED: Johnny Cash’s Last Duet with Daughter Rosanne “September When It Comes”]

Their final sessions together resulted in two posthumous Cash albums, including the Unearthed box set and 2006 release American V: A Hundred Highways, which included two original songs written by Cash: “I Came to Believe” and “Like the 309.”

The latter track was the final song ever written and recorded by Cash.


“Like the 309” was a full circle song for Cash, who was always infatuated with trains as a child. Even his first song in 1955, “Hey Porter,” recounted a train ride and conversation with one of the employees on board—Hey porter, hey porter / Please get my bags for me / I need nobody to tell me now / That we’re in Tennessee / Go tell that engineer to make / That lonesome whistle scream.

In the 1960s, Cash also released two locomotive-themed albums, Ride This Train in 1960 and his 1962 compilation All Aboard the Blue Train with Johnny Cash.

The Meaning

A bookend of sorts to “Hey Porter,” referencing his journey back home to Tennessee as a young man, “Like the 309” is centered around a final journey on a train and his own mortality.

Set at another train depot, “Like the 309,” Cash sings about his final ride on the 309 train.

It should be a while before I see doctor Death
So, it would sure would be nice if I could get my breath
Well, I’m not the cryin’, nor the whinin’ kind
Til I hear the whistle of the 309, of the 309, of the 309
Put me in my box on the 309

Take me to the depot, put me to bed
Blow an electric fan on my gnarly ol’ head
Everybody take a look, see, I’m doin’ fine
Then load my box on the 309
On the 309, on the 309
Put me in my box on the 309

Hey, sweet baby, kiss me hard
Draw my bath water, sweep my yard
Give a drink of my wine to my jersey cow
I wouldn’t give a hoot-and-nail for my journey now
On the 309, on the 309

I hear the sound of a railroad train
The whistle blows and I’m gone again
Hitman, take me higher than a Georgia pine
Stand back children, it’s the 309
It’s the 309, it’s the 309
Put me in my box on the 309

Final Performance: July 5, 2003

Though he had retired from touring, several months before his death on September 12, 2003 at age 71, Cash performed one final show on July 5, 2003, at the Carter Family Fold concert hall in Hiltons, Virginia.

[RELATED: 10 Songs You Didn’t Know Johnny Cash Wrote for Other Artists]

Sat in a chair with his guitar, he performed “Folsom Prison Blues,” “I Walk the Line,” and “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down,” before sharing a few words about Carter, who died just two months earlier on May 15 at age 73.

“The spirit of June Carter overshadows me tonight with the love she had for me and the love I have for her,” said Cash. “We connect somewhere between here and heaven. She came down for a short visit, I guess, from heaven to visit with me tonight to give me courage and inspiration like she always has. She’s never been one for me, except courage and inspiration. I thank God for June Carter. I love her with all my heart.”

Photo: Jim Steinfeldt/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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