June Carter Cash Dies at 73

June Carter Cash — singer, songwriter, actress, author and the daughter, wife, mother and stepmother of some of the brightest stars in the country music firmament — died Thursday (May 15) at 5:04 p.m. at Baptist Hospital in Nashville of complications from heart surgery. She was 73.

Valerie June Carter was born June 23, 1929, in Maces Springs, Va., to Ezra J. and Maybelle Addington Carter. Two years earlier, Maybelle — with her cousin Sara and Sara’s husband, A.P. — had joined several other acts in the Virginia-Tennessee border town of Bristol to make a series of recordings that would launch country music as a distinct commercial art form.

Taught by her mother to play autoharp, Carter gave her first public performance in 1937 along with her sisters, Helen and Anita, on a Bristol radio show. After the original Carter Family broke up in the early 1940s, she joined her mother and sisters to tour and perform on radio as
the Carter Sisters. In 1949, she teamed up with the musical comics Homer & Jethro for a parody recording of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” Although it was not her first record, it was the first one to chart, reaching the No. 9 slot. The following year, she made her Grand Ole Opry debut.

In 1952, Carter married fellow Grand Ole Opry star Carl Smith , who was then one of the hottest young acts in country music. Their daughter, Rebecca Carlene, was born in 1955. She would later achieve fame as Carlene Carter and gain her greatest prominence as a solo country artist in the early 1990s. June Carter and Smith divorced in the late 1950s. She then married Rip Nix, a union that produced another daughter, Rosie.

Apart from performing with her mother and sisters, Carter also took time out in the 1950s to study acting at Actor’s Studio and the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York. This led to roles in such TV series as Gunsmoke and Jim Bowie, as well as a part in the 1958 movie, Country Music Holiday.

The Carters joined Johnny Cash ’s road show in 1961. Cash had a No. 1 hit in 1963 with “Ring of Fire,” a song Carter co-wrote with Merle Kilgore. In 1967, Carter and Cash scored their first duet hit, “Jackson.” It went to No. 2 on the country charts and won them a Grammy. They followed “Jackson” a few months later with “Long-Legged Guitar Pickin’ Man,” which climbed to No. 6. The two singers married in 1968. The next year, they won the Country Music Association award for vocal group of the year. Their 1970 recording of “If I Were a Carpenter” rose to No. 2 on the charts and earned them another Grammy. That same year, their son, John Carter Cash, was born.

Carter penned two autobiographies — Among My Klediments, published in 1979, and From My Heart, which came out in 1987. She released the solo album Press On in 1999. Her first such project since Appalachian Pride in 1975, Press On won her a Grammy for best traditional folk album. At the time of her death, she was recording an album for Dualtone Records. She and Cash performed together last September at the Americana Music Awards in Nashville. One of her last public appearances was on April 7 in Nashville at the CMT Flameworthy 2003 Video Music Awards, where she accepted a career achievement award on behalf of her husband, who had recently returned home after being hospitalized for pneumonia. She underwent surgery on May 7 to replace a heart valve.

June Carter Cash is survived by her husband, Johnny, daughters Carlene Carter and Rosie, son John Carter Cash, and step-daughters Rosanne , Tara, Kathy and Cindy.

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to CMT.com.