NASHVILLE SKYLINE: June Carter Cash for the Ages

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

June Carter Cash’s final work, The Wildwood Flower (Dualtone), deserves your full attention because you’ll likely never again be exposed to a work such as this. A bare-bones, raw country record with pure emotion, one that also traces its lineage to the beginnings of country music. As a child of the founding family of country music, she was an eyewitness to history throughout her 73 years. She was also a very caring and compassionate human being. Along the way June absorbed such influences and sidetrips as her songwriting with Merle Kilgore and others, her touring and recording with her mother Maybelle Carter and her sisters, her lifelong devotion to husband Johnny Cash, her children and stepchildren’s involvement with the likes of Marty Stuart, Rodney Crowell, Nick Lowe, as well as varied and sundry others. Her stepdaughter Rosanne Cash’s own solid musical career is buttressed here by Rosanne’s poignant liner notes, which include the very moving, yet still funny elegy she delivered at June’s funeral service.

June’s is a great American story, told large in song across the great landscape of June’s remarkable life. This is not a pretty-sounding recording. Much of it, like the life it portrays, is rough and real. There are no Pro Tools to mask the grit, no studio techniques to try to turn June’s aged voice into a diva’s golden thrush. This is real music in an age of artificial reality; this is country music pure and unadorned, the way it has always been.

In his spoken word introduction to “The Road to Kaintuck,” Johnny Cash solemnly intones that it was a “dark and bloody ground” in the territory the settlers found in moving west, and you instinctively understand that that’s exactly the way it was.

There’s an old radio clip in the introduction to “Kneeling Drunkard’s Plea” that fairly drips with history. The old-time radio announcer introduces “radio’s famous Carter Singers,” who then sing “On the Trail of the Lonesome Pine.” “Kneeling Drunkard’s Plea” itself (written by Maybelle and her daughters June, Helen and Anita) is a classic example of the maudlin drunkard’s tales of early country music.

Much of this is work devoted to the original Carter Family songs, the works she grew up hearing, songs which formed a huge part of the foundation of country music. “Keep on the Sunny Side,” “Storms Are on the Ocean,” “Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone,” “Sinking in the Lonesome Sea,” “Cannonball Blues,” “Church in the Wildwood,” “Wildwood Flower” — and especially “Anchored in Love” — are marvelous evocations of the early years of country music and its simple themes. The songs explore flirtation, love, temptation, faith, faithlessness, honor, wanderlust, revenge, family, friends, tradition, loyalty, loss and death and the hereafter. Most of country music’s basic themes and values are vividly wrapped up in this handful of songs. In her spoken word introduction to “Church in the Wildwood,” June makes it plain just how close to everyday Southern life — her life to begin with — these songs were and in a certain sense still are. The songs live on in our collective memory.

June also had an earthy sense of humor. In her flirtatious duet with Johnny Cash on “Temptation,” she sounds downright raunchy. As she could be. In Marty Stuart’s wonderful book Pilgrims: Sinners, Saints and Prophets, there are a number of pictures of Johnny and June, but there’s one pair of lovely pictures of the couple. In the first picture they’re facing the camera head-on, arms around each other. The next photograph is taken from behind them and you see where Johnny’s hand is, and you wonder if that’s why June’s smiling so broadly.

And check out her rap about actor Lee Marvin on “Big Yellow Peaches” — just listen to June describing Lee hitting on her and chasing her around. She was at once simple and spontaneous and profound.

The CD also contains four wonderful videos, showing June and Johnny and friends recording four of these songs (“Wildwood Flower,” “Storms,” “Temptation,” “Sunny Side”) at the Carter Family Estate in Maces Spring, Va., in September 2002. In addition to watching her during the recording sessions, in the living room and out on the front porch, we can see June walking the grounds and recalling childhood memories.

There’s nothing complicated or contrived here. June Carter Cash was a very force of nature, and she sounds like she’s channeling natural musical forces. Family and friends also color this work. There’s marvelous singing by the likes of Carter family seniors Joe Carter and Janette Carter, June’s daughter Carlene Carter, June’s granddaughter Tiffany Anastasia Lowe and June’s husband Johnny Cash. This is also a tour de force for the great Norman Blake, whose masterful, fluid guitar picking propels most of these songs effortlessly along.

Real America. Hear it while you still can.