Family Affair

June Carter Cash 'Presses On' With Her First Album In Decades

When June Carter Cash first realized she was falling hard for Johnny Cash, she felt she was falling into a pit of fire and was literally burning alive. Rendering her feelings into words and music with help from a close friend, she came up with the seminal country song “Ring of Fire.” Johnny Cash recorded the song he inspired, taking “Ring of Fire” to the top of the charts in 1963 and making it one of his signature tunes. Five years later he joined the song’s writer in wedlock, affirming one of music’s greatest love stories.

“I realized,” June recalls, “that ‘Oh my Lord! I think I’m falling in love with Johnny Cash, and this is the most painful thing I’ve ever gone through in my life. It is like I’m in a ring of fire, and I’m never coming out. I’m going down, down to the bottom of this thing. It’s going to kill me, because I would never have the nerve to tell him, nor do I want to tell him, nor do I want anybody to even know I’ve got these feelings.’

“That’s the way I started writing the song,” Cash reflects, fidgeting with her long pearl necklace while seated at an antique table in the living room of her three-story lakeside house outside of Nashville. “I hadn’t written many songs. Merle Kilgore is a really good friend of mine and John’s, and he kept encouraging me to write. He came over the next morning and we finished it then.”

June recorded her own version of “Ring of Fire” for Press On (set for release on Small Hairy Dog/Risk Records on April 20), which is only the legendary entertainer’s second solo album, and her first in almost 25 years. Cash, who turns 70 in June, delivers the classic song in the simple way she–the composer–has always heard it. Gone are the horns heard on her husband’s famous version, the song stripped down to nothing but autoharp, acoustic guitar and fiddle.

“I’ve always been a simple kind of picker,” she says, “because I was born into the Carter family, and you don’t get much simpler than that.”

The CD’s thick liner notes reveal Cash’s “Recipe For A Happy Life,” a throwback to traditional American values as reflected by her personal creed: God, husband, family and friends. Even without the liners, the album shows how beautifully simplistic her love for God, family, life and music is.

The title Press On comes from a lyric in the lead-off track, the Carter Family classic “Diamonds In The Rough.” The album conveys a conversational tone and communicates a warm, homespun, family-gathering feeling. It emphasizes the same kind of down-home Southern hospitality the Cash family imparts to their houseguests. In the past, they have entertained friends such as Robert Duvall, who took residency at the Cash house when he was preparing his Oscar-nominated role for The Apostle (June portrayed Duvall’s mother in the 1997 film). This particular spring-like afternoon, though, they’re entertaining media visitors from both country.com and the nationally syndicated radio program, This Week In Americana.

Johnny Cash, who has laid low since beginning treatment for a neuro-degenerative disease in 1997, spends time with journalists before they question his wife of 31 years about her long-awaited solo project. John Carter Cash, the youngest of their seven children — and the only child June and Johnny have together — was on hand after the interview to provide a tour of the home recording studio (actually located across from the house inside a log cabin on the 50-acre ‘Cash Compound’) where he co-produced Press On.

And June, wearing a tasteful black dress and tailored Southwestern jacket, with her pure blue eyes and reassuring soulful laugh, comes across as a woman of staggering dignity who is clearly still in touch with her roots. The Carter heritage is strikingly apparent in her face; traces of both her famous mother, Maybelle Carter, and her famous daughter, Carlene Carter, are evident.

She talks about how the album came together organically with help from friends and family.

“We went in the little cabin to record with my friends around me who I just like to pick with. I called up Norman Blake, the great guitarist who worked for John and I when we first went on TV, and asked him if he would do this.

“Then Marty Stuart (who was married to Cindy Cash) and Rodney Crowell (who was married to Rosanne Cash) are ex-sons-in-law of mine, but they’re dear to me and dear to my heart. They were always asking me, ‘Why don’t you record some of these songs you’ve written through the years? You write the strangest things.’ Even though my girls have pressed on with their lives, and one of them is married again, that’s alright. I’ll never let these young men go and I don’t think they will ever let us go. Even Rodney got married again, and so we just made a place in our family for his new wife (Claudia Church, who recently made her debut on the country charts with “What’s The Matter With You Baby”). Our family keeps getting bigger and bigger, and if you have ever been in it, you’re still there.

“We went into the compound with just our acoustic instruments. We took no electrical instruments. It wasn’t anything we meant to record, but Marty said to me, ‘You have to sing for me ‘Diamonds In The Rough’ — that’s my favorite Carter Family song.’ I said, ‘OK, we’ll sing ‘Diamonds In The Rough,” and I just took off playing my autoharp and Marty sang with me. We just did it because that’s what he wanted to do.”

That kind of simplicity and spontaneity is prevalent throughout Press On. So are the family ties. Marty and Rodney appear on several songs. There’s John Carter Cash’s involvement as producer. Three original Carter Family songs are reprised; “Diamonds In The Rough” and “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” are musical bookends to songs that spotlight Cash’s life.

“Tiffany Anastasia Lowe” is a seen-it-all grandmother’s humorous warning to her actress granddaughter to stay away from a famous film director (“Quentin Tarantino makes the strangest movies that I’ve seen/Quentin Tarantino makes his women wild and mean”). Included are songs June co-wrote with her daughter Rosie, her late sister Helen and her husband. The home recording also features “The Far Side Banks of Jordan,” a duet she performs with The Man in Black.

“John’s still in bed and whenever he gets out I guess we’ll go back to pickin’ again,” Cash says. “But he wanted me to do this album, and he was nice enough to do ‘The Far Side Banks of Jordan.’ I love this song, and it’s one we’ve done for years on the stage. I just asked him if he felt like singing it. He came over to the compound, and we just sat there and sung it. That’s the first I’d heard him sing since he had been very sick. I got cold chills and was kind of crying halfway through the thing. I couldn’t hardly get through it. It was a very dramatic thing for me to sing it with him.”

Listening to Press On, one senses that Cash would rather sing an awkward line than a dishonest one, that she’s more concerned with raw emotions than polished artistry. She will tell you, without shame, that she was the least talented musician of the Carter Sisters. Helen was the most capable instrumentalist, Anita was the best singer and June was the best performer and comedienne. However, she notes from first-hand experience, “If you got Mother Maybelle standing on one side of you and Chet Atkins standing on the other side, you will play better. You will learn to pick a little bit better, because either one of them just had a glare that they could put you down with.”

No, she’s never been country music’s foremost picker and singer, but the songs on Press On are an audio autobiography of one of country’s longest, most colorful careers. June Carter Cash has become a national treasure as a member of country music’s “First Family” and as an individual performer.

Elvis Presley used to seek her out for late-night duets, and James Dean once paid tribute to her beauty with a single rose. June was married to ’50s country star Carl Smith — Carlene’s father. She has won two Grammy awards with her current husband; one for “Jackson” and the other for “If I Were A Carpenter.” Her mother crafted the “Carter lick” on the guitar, and the Appalachian girl watched it become the best-known picking style in the country genre.

June is godmother to Hank Williams Jr. and Roy Orbison’s three sons. She’s appeared in a string of TV shows such as Gunsmoke, Little House on the Prairie, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman and a half-dozen TV movies. And June has been a touching and philosophical writer; her autobiography, Among My Klediments, appeared in 1979, and she published another memoir, From The Heart, in 1987.

“I was about nine when I started in show business,” Cash says, taking a final sip from her glass of soda as the conversation winds down. “I’ve had a social security card since then, and I think I’ve gotten a check from somewhere every week. I really haven’t quit. No reason to quit. I don’t look at this album as a finished autobiography. My goodness, I’m still living. I’m still pressing on. That’s what it’s about.”