NAMPA — Ninety-eight-year-old Bertha Mullin can relate much of her life to the music of Johnny Cash.

Mullin grew up in Burmah, Idaho, in the 1920s, where her family didn’t have electricity or running water. They would eat dinner and visit under the light of gas lamps after boiling water from the canal they carried in 50-gallon buckets. Mullin is the last remaining of nine siblings.

“Johnny Cash didn’t have an easy life,” Mullin said, “but he came out on top.”

The musical tales of hardships and historical tale of Cash’s success resonates with her more than just a tune she can tap her foot to.

As a young girl, the only time Mullin could hear Cash’s music was when her family baked a cake and visited their neighbors 3 miles away.

Mullin, who is now in hospice care, said one of her regrets over her 98 years of life is never seeing Johnny Cash in concert.

On Thursday, though, she got the next best thing. Her hospice caregivers with Harrison’s Hope knew of Mullin’s love for Johnny Cash and her longtime wish to see him perform. They reached out to the Walking Phoenixes, a Johnny Cash tribute band performing at the Nampa Civic Center Saturday. To the workers’ surprise, the band not only gave Mullin and her children free tickets to come see the show, but they agreed to give Mullin a private in-home concert.

On Thursday, in the living room of Mullin’s oldest daughter’s home in Nampa, Mullin got to hear the infamous musician’s greatest hits and the gospel ballads she so loves. The five musicians surrounded Mullin and played a full set of her favorites, including “Walk the Line,” “Jackson,” “Were You There” and “Ring of Fire.”

The red-carpet treatment is well-deserved. Mullin was an accomplished nurse at the former Mercy Hospital in Nampa for more than three decades.

“I always enjoyed being of assistance to people,” she said.

Her actions went beyond basic necessities. Mullin used to bring cookies and coffee for patients and trained incoming nursing assistants. She was once recognized on the street by a patient she cared for who suffered a burst appendix.

“‘You may not remember me,’” Mullin recalled the man saying, “‘but I will never forget you.’ That made all the nursing heartaches worth it.”

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Mullin’s dedication to others started long before her nursing career. At the age of 12, she went to work for another family, housekeeping and cooking for $2.45 a month. The salary was sent back to her family at home.

“Everything was family,” Mullin said. “As I grew up, I thought we had everything we needed. When we ate, we all sat at the table together.”

Mullin’s two daughters Peg Forney and Beth Wood sat with their mom and watched her tear up as she listened to her favorite Johnny Cash songs, surrounded by her family and friends. Their mom taught them everything, they said, from sewing to cooking to gardening.

“Twenty people could drop into the house, and she could fix them a fabulous meal,” Forney said, “with only what was in the fridge.”

She loves her family the most, Wood said.

“Mom could sit and talk and visit with you for hours,” she said.

The Walking Phoenixes visited two other Harrison’s Hospice patients, as well. Connecting with the community is the purpose of their tour, said Drew Young, the band’s founder and lead singer.

The group wanted to share their talents and thought Johnny Cash’s music would be a good way, Young said.

“(Cash’s music) is so timeless, it’s the one music that sticks out. Anytime we play Johnny Cash, especially the concerts we do, we have all walks of life,” Young said. “He tells stories in his music, and I think that’s what people want to hear. The narration. It touches people.”

In a way, Mullin can now put that lingering regret to rest.

Her secret to a long life? “I’ve always attributed it to just trying to keep happy,” she said. “You can’t take care of yesterday and you don’t know what you’ve got to take care of tomorrow. So, just be happy.”

Riley Bunch covers federal politics as well as education and social issues for the Idaho Press. Reach her at rbunch@idahopress.com or follow @rbunchIPT on Twitter.

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