NASHVILLE SKYLINE: June Carter Cash: An American Original

NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo).

The world will never know what June Carter Cash might have ultimately achieved as a solo recording artist, since she early on made the decision to devote most of her time to husband and family. That was a hugely demanding job in and of itself. She literally rescued husband Johnny Cash from drugs and self-destruction and supported his career as well as raising a large handful of sometimes difficult children who were the result of hers and Johnny’s earlier marriages, plus their one son together.

But, while I was seated at her funeral service earlier this week, listening to the musical echoes from throughout her life and especially the moving version of the Carter Family classic song “Anchored in Love” by her aged cousins Janette Carter and Joe Carter, I was thinking that we should be grateful for the recordings that she did make. Her legacy reaches far beyond mere physical recordings, of course. She nurtured talent throughout her life, and there are more lives that were profoundly touched and enriched by her than I can begin to describe. Speakers at the funeral — fans and friends and professional co-workers of June — spoke movingly of her spiritual qualities. A TV director, for one, said, “It’s not often you see the face of God in one of your actors,” as he referred to one of June’s appearances on the show Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.

I know that personally one of the most rewarding experiences of my life happened in May of 1999 when Johnny hosted an album party for June’s second solo album, Press On. (Her first album, Appalachian Pride from 1976 is now available as part of the Bear Family import CD It’s All in the Family). The affair was held under a large tent at the Cash family compound overlooking Old Hickory Lake, and it was a leisurely afternoon and evening of visiting and talking, followed by a bountiful dinner. Then, Johnny presented June, who performed a beguiling and spellbinding evening of stage magic, reminding us all of the singer and songwriter and actress and comedienne that she had been all along. Along the way of her life and career, she spanned the entirety of recorded country music history and heritage, and she conveyed that very graphically.

By coincidence, that album Press On was reissued last month by Dualtone Records. It was not a big seller when it was originally released on Small Hairy Dog Records, and I think it frightened many gatekeepers in the music distribution system because it was so musically basic and frank and so trend-free. “No commercial potential” was the slogan that musical experimenter Frank Zappa coined many years ago, and it still applies to such free musical spirits as June. But people like June Carter Cash are the reason that country music is country music; why it says things that no other musical genre says; why it expresses the spirit of a way of life.

But Press On is well worth your attention. It’s very much an autobiography. To begin with, there’s a charming array of photographs — family snapshots that include a décolletage photo of June taken by Johnny, group pictures of the Carter Family, the many kids, the contributing musicians such as Norman Blake and Cash-Carter sons-in-law Marty Stuart and Rodney Crowell. June’s liner notes are equally fascinating. She spells out the “Recipe For A Happy Life: Always keep God number one, Husband number two, Children number three, Friends number four. ” There’s a special section of thanks to June’s “favorite mothers.”

And she writes frankly about the album and the songs: “Press On — those words must have been the two main words that pushed and pulled me on throughout my life from my days as simple mountain girl and pressed me into the person that I’ve become today,” she says. Tellingly, she writes of her early career: “I was encouraged by Elia Kazan, a wonderful producer of great Broadway plays and movies, to go to New York City and study dramatics. So, I moved, my first daughter, Carlene, with me to New York City from 1955 to 1956…..I call those my rock and roll years — because during that time I worked some tours with Elvis Presley. This song ’I Used To Be Somebody’ takes me back to that time and makes me realize that things will never be the same again. I had a great love for acting, and maybe, if I hadn’t gotten to know Johnny Cash better, my life would have been different.”

She’s equally frank on her great song “Ring of Fire”: “My friend Merle Kilgore, who is a songwriter and manager of my god-son Hank Williams Jr., always encouraged me to write songs. It was because of his encouragement that I found the inspiration to write ’Ring of Fire.’ It was about Johnny Cash. I felt like I had fallen into a pit of fire and I was literally burning alive. From true-life experience and help from Merle, I finally wrote the song. My husband Johnny Cash loved and recorded ’Ring of Fire,’ one of his most beloved hits.”

There’s also the charming contemporary song “Tiffany Anastasia Lowe,” written about her granddaughter of the same name (the daughter of daughter Carlene Carter and Brit rocker Nick Lowe). June advises her young aspiring actress granddaughter: “Tiffany, girl, go find an earthquake, go jump in a crack/Just don’t let Quentin Tarantino find out where you’re at.”

The entire album is reflective of June Carter Cash’s life: nothing escaped her sharp but compassionate gaze. We could use a few more like her.