December 23, 2002 12:00 PM

The black-clad figure descending the staircase moves I hesitantly, slowed by age and infirmity. His kingly mane has turned wispy and white. His voice quavers and his hands shake. Even so, the craggy brow and resonant baritone are unmistakable. “Hi,” he says, needlessly introducing himself to a visitor in his home outside Nashville, “I’m John.”

For Johnny Cash, 70, the simple greeting is a triumph. Five years ago, the death watch was on for the Man in Black. He was diagnosed with Shy-Drager syndrome, a rare neurological disease that killed his father at 88 in 1985. Told he had as little as a year to live, Cash was as defiant as one of the Old Testament prophets in his well-thumbed King James Bible. “I refuse to give it some ground in my life,” he told himself. With more than 100 albums already to his credit, he vowed to complete yet another. “And it’s going to be the best I’ve ever done.”

The singer, it turns out, was misdiagnosed; he actually suffers from autonomic neuropathy, often a diabetes-related disorder whose symptoms can mimic Shy-Drager but which is rarely fatal. Yet he has delivered on his promise. The Man Comes Around: American Recordings IV, released Nov. 5 and featuring Cash’s versions of traditional country fare (Hank Williams’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”) and such surprises as “Personal Jesus,” by Depeche Mode and “Hurt,” by Nine Inch Nails, has won raves from critics like one in USA Today who called the album “a revelation.”

Cash says the three-year recording process was a “labor of love.” But ravaged as he was by disease, his energies flagging and his immune system dangerously depleted, it’s a miracle the album was finished at all. Nearly blinded from the glaucoma that clouds his eyes, he needed a magnifying glass to read the sheet music. And plagued by asthma, he was hospitalized three times with pneumonia, including one bout that put him in a coma for 10 days. “I had some nightmare days in the studio,” says Cash. “I didn’t have any voice or lung power left. I’d have a studio full of musicians and all this expense goin’ and I couldn’t sing a drop. It wasn’t just the money; it was the very idea of not being able to sing. That was the thing that really hurt.”

Despite the debilitating effects of disease, Cash still proves an imposing presence as he rambles around the stately stone-and-timber mansion he shares with fellow singer June Carter, his wife of 34 years. Set on the wooded shores of Old Hickory Lake, the house is filled with antiques and permeated with music history. A stained-glass portrait of Maybelle Carter, June’s mother and matriarch of country music’s legendary Carter Family, graces a corner of the living room where Cash once hosted informal “guitar pulls” with songwriter pals like Joni Mitchell, Kris Kristofferson and Bob Dylan. Little wonder that Cash inspires awe even among his peers. “I know people know who we are,” says Emily Robison of the Dixie Chicks, one of Cash’s favorite new groups, “but it still boggles my mind that Johnny Cash would utter our name.” Singer Marty Stuart, a former sideman who was once married to Cash’s daughter Cindy, still marvels at the effect Cash has on people. “I saw everything from a little boy that came backstage who wanted him to pull his tooth to a mother outside the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, begging him to help get her son off death row. That’s when I realized how special this guy is.”

Descended from a Scottish ship captain who ferried pilgrims across the Atlantic in the 1600s, Cash was one of seven children in a family of Dyess, Ark., sharecroppers. Laboring in the cotton fields from age 8, he has no fond memories of the backbreaking, skin-scarring work. “I picked it, I chopped it, I hauled it,” he says. “It was drudgery.” He sought solace in music. “Songs were my life,” he says. “I feasted on them.” Enlisting in the Air Force after graduating from high school in 1950, Cash was stationed in Germany, where he wrote the song that would become his signature, “Folsom Prison Blues,” after a film about prison conditions was screened on the base. The song’s chilling line, “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die,” was the result, he later wrote, of “trying to think up the worst reason a person could have for killing another person.”

Following his 1954 discharge, Cash started his first family—he and his former wife Vivian Liberto have four daughters, including country singer Rosanne Cash—and launched his career after cadging an audition with Sun Records’ Sam Phillips. “I didn’t get discovered,” says Cash, who joined a roster that included Elvis Presley and Roy Orbison. “I went down and opened the door for discovery myself.”

Reaping all of $6.42 from his first royalty check in 1955, Cash had amassed a fortune by 1969, when he hosted The Johnny Cash Show on ABC and outearned even Elvis, thanks to hits like Johnny Cash at San Quentin and the single “A Boy Named Sue.” But he’d nearly lost it all in the mid-’60s, when binges on alcohol and amphetamines landed him in jailhouse drunk tanks and got him banned from the Grand Ole Opry. “I was scraping the filthy bottom of the barrel of life,” he later wrote in an autobiography.

Salvation came in crinoline. Carter, like Cash, was married when the two became tour partners in 1962. Their forbidden, tempestuous love was one of Nashville’s worst-kept secrets and the subject of his 1963 hit “Ring of Fire,” cowritten by June. Lines like “Bound by wild desire…the flames went higher” seem “scary” to her now, she says. “When I fell in love with him, it was a very painful thing.”

Eventually they each obtained divorces and married in 1968, with Carter becoming an ally in his lifelong battle with drugs. Cash struggled professionally in the following decade before rebounding in 1985 with The Highwaymen, his collaboration with Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings. He scored again in 1993 with the first of his American Recordings, austere masterpieces that fixed his place in the music firmament. And yet, for all his accomplishments, Cash, an inductee of both the Country Music and Rock and Roll halls of fame, admits that even today the old demons haunt. “They’re very sinister,” he told Rolling Stone recently. “All of a sudden, there’ll be a beautiful little Percodan laying there, and you’ll want it.” But Cash derives strength from the Bibles he collects, almost as a shield against temptation, and from his loving relationship with Carter and their children. (Besides their only child together, son John Carter Cash, 32, who coproduced The Man Comes Around, the couple have six children from previous marriages, including June’s daughter, singer Carlene Carter.) “We’ve shared it all together,” June says, “the good, the bad…” and, adds Johnny, “the gnarly.”

Steve Dougherty

Kelly Williams in Nashville