Women in Music: June Carter Cash

22nd Jun 2012

Women in Music: June Carter Cash

At the mention of June Carter Cash, film-goers will recall the 2005 biopic, Walk The Line, in which Reese Witherspoon gave an Oscar-winning performance as the feisty singer who rescued country music legend Johnny Cash from a life of addiction and despair.

But that only tells half the story. Valerie June Carter was born on June 23, 1929, in Maces Spring, Virginia, the second of three daughters.

“Music was a strong, beautiful thread that tied the people of the mountains,” June’s son, John Carter Cash, wrote in his touching memoir, Anchored in Love: An Intimate Portrait of June Carter Cash (2007.)

Her father, Ezra Carter, and his wife, Maybelle Carter, had formed The Carter Family, a traditional folk music group, with relatives A.P. Carter and Sara Carter, and they began recording in 1927. They soon became one of America’s most popular radio acts, touring all year round.

One of the Carter Family’s many fans was a young Johnny Cash, who wrote in his 1997 biography, Cash, that their music inspired “the folk revival of the late 1950s and early 1960s, and today’s ‘alternative’ country movement.”

June’s voice wasn’t particularly strong, but nonetheless she had joined the group by the age of ten. She learned to play the banjo, autoharp, and guitar. June was also a ‘natural-born clown,’ winning over audiences with her knockabout comedy routine.

In 1952, June married honky-tonk singer Carl Smith. But by the time their daughter, Carlene, was born in 1955, they had separated. June moved to New York, where famed director Elia Kazan persuaded her to study acting.

June moved back to Nashville and married former football player Edwin ‘Rip’ Nix in 1957. Their daughter, Rosey, was born a year later. June toured with Elvis Presley and Patsy Cline.

June also toured with another rising star, Johnny Cash. By 1961, they had fallen in love.

Both were married, however, and a further obstacle to their relationship was posed by Johnny’s drug and alcohol abuse. (It was during this turbulent period that June co-wrote one of Johnny’s most famous songs, Ring of Fire, with Merle Kilgore.)

Although most people credit June as a good influence on Johnny, Vivian Cash, his first wife, held a much darker view. “I couldn’t understand how anyone could have control like (June) did unless it was devil-driven,” Vivian remarked in her posthumously-published memoir, I Walked the Line (2007.)

An album of duets, Carryin’ On With Johnny Cash and June Carter (1967), spawned hits like If I Were a Carpenter, Jackson, and a cover of Bob Dylan’s It Ain’t Me Babe. But June hesitated to marry Johnny until he finally got clean.

June and Johnny were married in 1968, and their son, John, was born in 1970.

After taking her husband’s name, June worked to establish herself as an artist in her own right with her début solo album, Appalachian Pride (1975.)

In the mid-1970s, June – a ‘prayer warrior’ – completed a doctorate through the Christian International Bible College. She and Johnny collaborated on a deeply personal film, Gospel Road (1973.)

But by the end of that decade, Johnny had relapsed into addiction. After a brief separation, June organised a family intervention, and Johnny entered the Betty Ford Clinic.

In 1982, the Cashes and their young son were the victims of an armed robbery at Cinnamon Hill, their home in Jamaica. Moved by the compassionate response of the local people, they decided to keep the house, once inhabited by June’s favourite poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

Among My Klediments, June’s first volume of autobiography, was published in 1979, followed by From the Heart in 1984. Like Johnny, June was committed to humanitarian causes. Jimmy Carter, US president from 1977-81, was a distant relation.

In 1999, June recorded a second album, Press On, winning a Grammy award in 2000. Her final album, Wildwood Flower, was released in 2002. One of her most enduring hits was Will the Circle Be Unbroken?

At the end of her life, June suffered from arthritis and other ailments. Her unexpected death, on May 15, 2003, was followed by the passing of both Johnny Cash and her daughter, rock singer Rosey Nix Adams, just months later. (June’s eldest daughter, Carlene Carter, is a country music star in her own right.)

In 2007, John Carter Cash produced a tribute album, Anchored in Love, featuring artists like Willie Nelson, Sheryl Crow, and Rosanne Cash. The singer Jewel is currently filming a TV movie about June’s life.

Johnny Cash described his wife as “one of the most neglected artists in country music.” June’s finest recordings are collected in Keep on the Sunny Side and Duets.

Tara Hanks