(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
Although her recorded musical work is scant in comparison to her husband’s, June Carter Cash’s legacy is a rich one.
The new two-CD Carter Cash set on Columbia/Legacy, Keep on the Sunny Side: June Carter Cash — Her Life in Music, is the first comprehensive look at an extraordinary musical career. A true child of country music, June Carter was born to Maybelle Carter, of the Carter Family, and her husband Ezra in Maces Spring, Va., in 1929. With her sisters Helen and Anita, young June learned music at early age and, in 1939, accompanied the Carter Family to the Mexican border station XERA, where they sang along on such songs as “Keep on the Sunny Side,” which opens this set. And she sang solo in 1939 on “Oh! Susannah,” the compilation’s second cut.
When the Family Carter broke up in 1943, Maybelle set out on the road, touring with her three daughters as Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters. They toured and played regional barn dances for years, picking up guitarist Chet Atkins as accompanist in 1949 in Knoxville, before landing on the Grand Ole Opry in 1950.
Johnny Cash later said he got his first glimpse of June on the Opry when he was still in high school and remembered her well. Maybelle and her daughters toured with Elvis Presley in the late 1950s, and June later said Presley had a crush on her. Hank Williams once fired a pistol at her — fortunately missing her — because he claimed she looked like his wife Audrey. When she studied at the Actors Studio in New York City, actors James Dean and Marlon Brandon both were said to pay a great deal of attention to her. After two earlier marriages — to future Country Music Hall of Famer Carl Smith and to Nashville police officer Rip Nix — she devoted the rest of her life to her passion, Johnny Cash, for whom she had already co-written the simmering song, “Ring of Fire.”
The CD package touches nicely on steppingstones throughout her life: her collaborations with her sisters and mother, her comedic work with Homer & Jethro, her early solo efforts, a duet with Smith, a collaboration with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, her duets with Johnny Cash and her later solo recordings. You can hear a hundred years of country music history and American history in these songs and performances.
She touched many lives. She entertained people from all walks of life at the Cash compound on Old Hickory Lake near Nashville, from wretched journalists to presidents and movie stars and waitresses and clerks she met. And perhaps not many people realize she largely gave up her personal ambition, a blossoming solo music career and a promising acting career in New York, to be Mrs. Johnny Cash and mother to a brood of children who were sometimes very difficult. Just keeping her husband alive was sometimes a full-time job.
“Song to John” is a very frank and touching love song to her husband. She once said she thought her role in life — like that of the Biblical Aaron holding up Moses’ hands to ensure victory for the children of Israel — was to hold up Johnny Cash’s arms so he could prevail. Moses was a fiery leader; Aaron was a peacemaker and very much the strength for Moses. There are those who believe Johnny Cash was the equivalent of a music prophet. If so, June Carter Cash was surely his muse and his strength.
Throughout her life, in the midst of family adversity, she maintained a steadfast vision of the worth of family, friends, home and music that was unwavering. She also preserved the traditions and the integrity and the continuity of a music that has been labeled many things, ranging from folk to hillbilly to country but that in the end has just remained the musical voice of a nation.
In her 1987 memoir One From the Heart, Carter Cash wrote, “I can hear the country music of today, but the longing hearts in the night can remember a moon hanging over the knob — peeping through the hemlocks to the porch of our old Clinch Mountain home where I swung silently to the croaking of the frogs. I was proud on the stage at Carnegie Hall or Royal Albert Hall in London as we bowed to their cheers. Why could I not see their faces through the spotlights — only the face of my Aunt Florida shining through, saying ‘You were really good, honey, singing on the porch today’?”