June Carter Cash – Unbroken circle
By 1961, June was singing and doing standup with Cash’s road show and, before she knew it, falling for Cash and trying to save him from his self-destructive ways. She immortalized the mix of desire and trepidation she felt at the time in “Ring Of Fire”, a chart-topping hit for her future husband in 1963.
“It was a terrible shock when I found out John was taking pills,” June wrote in Among My Klediments, her 1979 autobiography. (“Klediment,” she explains, is mountain parlance for anything that one holds dear.) “He dropped a few pills in front of me in Macon, Georgia, one afternoon, and I could hardly believe it. I knew he didn’t sleep much at night. You could hear him roaming around his room if you were anywhere near. I could remember how it had been with Hank Williams a few years before when Hank took so much medicine for his bad back, and how my sisters and I worried about him.
“But the show always had to go on, and ours did. And I found myself fighting hard with Johnny Cash. It was only later that I began to realize I was fighting him for his life.”
“June saved my life,” admits Cash, 67, sitting at home with the woman who, for years, flushed his pills down the toilet. “And after that, June and her family kept me steadily on course at times when the rudder was shaky. Maybelle was a great friend, she and Pop Carter both. They were like parents to me. My parents were living in California at the time. They were happy, after they got to know a little about them, that I was spending a lot of time with the Carters because they were people who truly cared for me, as did June. They knew she did. So it was their love and care for me, and the musical influence, and the musical sharing, eventually, with all of them, that was very binding. And we’re all still kind of bound up that way.”
After she married Cash in 1968, June threw herself into being a good wife and mother. “John had four daughters the day I married him, and I had two,” she explains. “That gave me six daughters right off the bat, so all of a sudden I’m a big mother now. And then I had our son, John Carter. And then — I don’t remember what year it was, but this was another big surprise — I was named Youth for Christ mother of the year. I said to myself, ‘How did I get this?’ And I thought, ‘Good Lord, I’ve got seven kids, that’s how I did it.’ I was still working on the road and carrying one of them with me. John Carter would be waiting in the wings until I’d done my part on the show and could run right off and nurse him.”
Now that their kids are grown — John Carter Cash has a 3-year-old of his own — June has lately been nursing her husband, who suffers from Shy-Drager syndrome, a degenerative nerve disorder. She spent a good deal of time taking care of her sister Helen, who died last year after a long illness, and also has been seeing to her kid sister Anita, who has been in poor health. In fact, apart from touring at her husband’s side and releasing a 1975 solo album, Appalachian Spring (the Cashes also won Grammys for two duets, “Jackson” and “If I Were A Carpenter”), June has for more than three decades abandoned her own career for family.
“June has been so devoted and attached to everything that I’ve been doing all these years,” says her husband, “that she never really put any thought into doing anything of her own.”
“It was just a choice I made,” says June, sounding less like someone who subscribes to the submissive housewife cant of Phyllis Schlafly than like a woman who knows her own mind.
“I guess I could have tried to record,” she adds, “but I didn’t. I didn’t even give it a thought. My ex-sons-in-law, Rodney Crowell, Marty Stuart, and Nick Lowe, all would say, ‘What’s wrong with you? Why don’t you record again?’ And I’d say, ‘Well, I’m awful busy.’ It’s amazing that I’ve got an album out after all this time.”
“I’d been wanting June to do this for years,” says Cash. “She’s had it in her to do it. Although she downplays them and diminishes their worth, I knew these songs of hers, I knew that they were very worthy of being on the record. And now what with the diversification of the market, there’s a place for her work. There hadn’t been before.
“There hadn’t been a place for the work like I did with American,” Cash continues, talking about American Recordings and Unchained, the raw-boned mid-’90s albums he made for Rick Rubin’s American Recordings label. “There hadn’t been. But when you can win a Grammy for some of that kind of work, you realize there’s a market for it.”
“When John recorded his last two albums, he did them the way he wanted to,” says June. “And I said, ‘Well, if I could do an album the way I wanted to, I might be interested in doing one one of these days.’ Well, Rick Rubin heard me say that. We were playing a lot of places he wanted us to play — the House of Blues in L.A., a lot of rock ‘n’ roll places and colleges. We were playing for a lot of young people and it was a lot of fun. They accepted John so well. And they accepted me the same way. I could see no difference in any audience that I’d ever had.”
Vicki Hamilton, a veteran of the hard-rock trenches who had worked with Guns N’ Roses and Motley Crue, was among the converts in this latter-day audience. “Vicki had never been caught up in my music or anything like it,” June explains. “But one night, while standing in the wings with Tom Petty and Rick Rubin, she asked Rick if I was ever gonna record again. And Rick said to her, “I’d love to see her record. Why don’t you do it?’ So Rick asked me if I would talk to Vicki, who had been thinking about starting her own label. He gave me her number and I called her up and she said, ‘I love that song about I used to be somebody. It made me cry.’ And she said, ‘If it can make me cry, as tough as I am, it can make a lot of people cry.'”