June Carter Cash – Unbroken circle
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight…and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.
— Hebrews 12:1
Few have heeded this exhortation with such devotion as June Carter Cash, and not just as a woman of faith. A member of the first family of country music — as daughter, wife, mother, and grandmother — she has, for much of her 70 years, fixed her eyes on another, albeit related, goal: preserving and expanding the Carter Family circle and its musical legacy. This has often meant putting her career on hold to care for children and ailing family members. Other times it has meant working in the shadow of her husband, Johnny Cash, or of her mother Maybelle, aunt Sara, and uncle A.P., the trio that, in 1927, helped usher country music into the modern era.
Recently, though, it was June’s turn to take center stage. On a honeysuckle-perfumed evening in mid-May, a host of 200 gathered at the Cash estate north of Nashville to bear witness to the race June has run. The occasion was the release of her new solo album, the aptly titled Press On, a clutch of exquisitely unvarnished songs that functions much as a musical autobiography.
The festivities took place under a tent up the hill from the Cashes’ sprawling, three-story house overlooking Old Hickory Lake. There was plenty of Southern cooking (corn cakes, fried green tomatoes, fudge pie), no booze, and an odd mix of family, industry weasels and celebrities. Included among this last group were George Jones, Connie Smith, Naomi Judd and Jane Seymour.
Nothing, however, galvanized the proceedings quite like the moment the Man in Black, his wife at his side, stood before the assembly like a hillbilly Isaiah and announced: “Her time has come now.” A full-minute standing ovation followed, after which June, sitting down with her autoharp, confessed, “I’ve been real happy paddling along after John, being Mrs. Johnny Cash all these years. But I’m sure thrilled to be up here singing for you tonight.”
Throughout the evening, June invoked family members who have gone on: Aunt Sara and Uncle A.P., Ezra “Eck” Carter (her father), and Mother Maybelle, whose 1932 L5 Gibson round-hole guitar she played on her rendition of “Wildwood Flower”. June also summoned long-gone friends from her “rock ‘n’ roll years”: Hank Williams and Elvis Presley (she toured with both), as well as Tennessee Williams, James Dean and writer-director Elia Kazan, with whom she kept company as a drama student in New York in the mid-’50s.
By the time she closed her set, by turns hilarious and poignant, urging her guests to sing along to “Will The Circle Be Unbroken”, the matriarch of the Carter-Cash clan had not only enlarged the cloud of witnesses who had surrounded her, she had testified to the power of that circle, the nurture of which has been her life’s calling.
Along the way, Valerie June Carter, born June 23, 1929, in Maces Springs, Virginia, has enjoyed a kaleidoscopic career of her own. As a gangly tomboy with a sure-fire sense of timing, June’s hayseed-improv provided comic relief for countless Carter Family shows during the ’30s and ’40s. On radio and on the road with her mother and sisters Helen and Anita, she was a mainstay of perhaps the most in-demand country act of the ’40s and ’50s, one that boasted a young picker named Chester Burton Atkins.
“We had probably the hottest show on WSM back then,” says June, her azure eyes ablaze, sitting in the Cashes’ downstairs den, a museum-like vault that holds dozens of photos and momentos from the couple’s fabled career. “According to Artists Service, the outfit that booked dates for Opry acts back then, WSM made more money from the Carter Sisters, and from Mother Maybelle and the Carters, than they made from anyone else on the Opry. We went through a year of working shows with Hank Williams when he said, ‘I will not close for the Carter broads.’ And it’s true. Hank never closed for us.”
But it wasn’t just as part of the family act that June achieved acclaim. Not quite 20, she had her first Top 10 hit, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” (with Homer & Jethro), in 1949. As a solo artist in the mid-’50s, she toured with the young Elvis Presley, with whom she also shared a manager, Colonel Tom Parker. After that, as a protege of Elia Kazan, who directed Marlon Brando in On The Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire, June studied acting at New York’s renowned Neighborhood Playhouse. She appeared on the Jackie Gleason and Jack Paar shows, and in 1958 made her first movie, Country Music Holiday. The picture co-starred country crooner Ferlin Husky (“Gone”), Zsa Zsa Gabor, boxer Rocky Graziano, and the Jordanaires.
During the late ’50s and early ’60s, when her mother and sisters were on the road without her, June worked on the Opry, anchoring the Prince Albert segment of the program with her gags and gregarious stage presence. “I could carry the first part of the show, just cutting up and playing banjo, guitar, and autoharp,” she remembers. “Once I carried it for two hours when [the other regulars] were late getting there.” During this time, June also played dates with some of country’s biggest names, including Marty Robbins, George Jones, Buck Owens and Eddy Arnold. Her days in the spotlight, though, would be numbered after she met the Man in Black.
“I first heard of Johnny Cash through Elvis Presley,” she explains. “Elvis would make me go into these little cafes and listen to John sing when we played in the South — in the Carolinas and all down through Florida and Georgia. Then, one night backstage at the Opry, this man walked up to me and said, ‘I want to meet you. I’m Johnny Cash.’ And I said, ‘Well I oughta know who you are. Elvis can’t even tune his guitar unless he goes, ‘Everybody knows where you go when the sun goes down,'” adds June, alluding to a line from “Cry, Cry, Cry”, Cash’s first hit for Sun Records (#14 C&W, 1955).