HENDERSONVILLE, Tenn. — The late June Carter Cash was buried Sunday (May 19) with a heartfelt send-off from fans and friends from all walks of life. In an extraordinary one hour and 50 minute funeral service that included testimonies from a TV star, fans who flew cross country to attend, and a diplomat, as well as stellar musical performances, Carter Cash was remembered most of all as a caring person whose life was her art as much as her art was also her life.
The service was held at the First Baptist Church in Hendersonville, just a stone’s throw from the Cash family compound on Old Hickory Lake and the House of Cash museum — now closed — on Johnny Cash Parkway.
With Johnny Cash seated on the head pew, just in front of the powder blue open casket holding Carter Cash’s body and a sea of flowers cascading across the front of the sanctuary, some 2,000 Cash family members, friends and just plain fans took part in an old-fashioned Southern funeral that was part preaching, part singing, part laughing, part story-telling, part weeping and part rejoicing. The frail-appearing Cash had to enter and leave the church in a wheelchair, and many weeping friends and fans clutched his hands or patted him on the shoulder as he passed by.
The service was in many ways a testament to a passing way of life in country music, in which the fan is treated as the equal of the star. Johnny and June Cash were from the old school of country music, in which the fan was truly loved by the artist and that love was reflected back. Several fans who took advantage of the open microphone, that was made available well into the service, walked to the pulpit to explain their love and devotion to the Cashes. Their messages were similar: Johnny and June had demonstrated their love for their audience — and their accessibility to the fans. This service had originally been closed to the public until Cash threw it open, saying in a statement, “Thanks to June’s friends, fans and loved ones for the outpouring of love at this terrible time. I love you all.” At the service, the open microphone was available to anyone in the church.
One fan who had just gotten off a plane from Colorado looked more like she was on her way to Fan Fair — shorts, bright yellow T-shirt and cap. But she was quite eloquent as she talked about why Johnny and June are important to her, as spiritual guideposts. A young musician from Delaware said he had gotten on a plane and come to Nashville for the funeral, because a bunch of his fellow musicians had deputized him to represent them and to express their love to the Cashes and their music.
The Prime Minister of Jamaica sent his personal emissary to deliver a statement on what June and Johnny have meant to the people and government of that country, in all the years that the Cashes have kept their second home there, at Cinnamon Hill. Jane Seymour, star of TV’s Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, said, “June taught me so much about acting and God and living and love.”
June Carter Cash’s stepdaughter Rosanne Cash told many stories about her stepmother, the most important being that being a step-anything was not important. There were many stepchildren resulting from June’s and Johnny’s marriages but — said Rosanne — June banned the word “step” in the family. “There were two kinds of people in her world: those she knew and loved and those she didn’t yet know but loved.”
Faces in the crowd in the church reflected events from throughout the Cashes’ lives: writer/singer Kris Kristofferson, actor Robert Duvall (June acted in his movie The Apostle), former son-in-law Marty Stuart, friend Hank Williams Jr., Merle Kilgore (who wrote “Ring of Fire” with June) and musical collaborator Jeff Hanna from the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and the Will the Circle Be Unbroken albums.
Voices from the Cashes’ past delivered memorable musical tributes. Larry Gatlin, who was first introduced to audiences by Johnny at June’s urging some three decades ago, served as emcee for the service, and he and his brothers, Steve and Rudy, sang an inspired version of “Help Me” as the first musical offering. Emmylou Harris more or less brought down the house with an ethereal rendition of “Angel Band,” with Sheryl Crow singing harmony. Crow later sang lead vocal and played autoharp on “On the Sea of Galilee,” with Harris adding harmony vocals. Longtime Cash family friends, the Oak Ridge Boys, filled the large church sanctuary with their rich vocal harmonies in “Loving God, Loving Each Other.”
But the magical musical moment came with the singing of “Anchored in Love,” which was a 1928 recording by the founding family of country music, the Carter Family, which was made up of June’s mother Maybelle, Maybelle’s cousin Sara and her husband A.P. Carter. Now, the aged children of Sara and A.P. — Janette Carter and Joe Carter — were onstage at June Carter Cash’s funeral — seated in armchairs as they performed, and they were joined by Lorrie Bennett and Dale Jett, and the result was spellbinding. Janette is now 80 years old and her brother Joe is 76. The listeners in the church were transported almost 100 years back, back to Maces Springs, Va., when county music was bubbling up as an art form, and when the Carter Family was defining what country music harmonies would be. This 2003 funereal singing of “Anchored in Love” will stand for the ages as a document of transition: when one founding generation of a music lays down a definitive version of an epochal musical work for future generations to study. Janette’s harmonies and her silvery autoharp playing and Joe’s sepulchral vocal overlays on this funereal day gave the song a timeless quality.
That was a hard act to follow, but Larry Gatlin rose to the occasion with a stirring, unscheduled a capella version of “Far-Side Banks of Jordan,” an old Carter Family song which Carter Cash and her husband recorded on her Grammy-winning 1999 album Press On. Then, the hearse and the long line of shiny limousines were readied for June Carter Cash’s last ride.