Celebrating June Carter

It seems like there has always been a June Carter. Her legendary life and storied career spans the length and breadth of country music. She was an acclaimed singer, actor, comedienne, author, musician, evangelist, philanthropist, mother and wife.  In between all of that, she also composed one of the most important songs in country music history and was half of an epic love story that resounds and inspires to this very day.

June was born in the foothills of Appalachian southwest Virginia in 1929, the middle daughter of Ezra (Eck) and Maybelle Carter. Less than two years prior, Maybelle, an 18 year old pregnant housewife, together with her cousin, Sara Carter, and Sara’s husband, an infirmed farmer named Alvin Pleasant (A.P.) Carter–who was also Eck’s brother—traveled to Bristol, Tennessee (not an easy trek for this band) and auditioned for Victor Talking Machine Company producer Ralph Peer, who was looking for homegrown musical talent for his record label. The Carter Family’s recordings that day were the beginning of what became known as the “Big Bang” of modern country music, when the genre exploded in popularity, and this unlikely mountain family was among its earliest stars. Songs such as “Wildwood Flower,” “Can the Circle Be Unbroken,” “Keep on the Sunny Side,” “Wabash Cannonball” and dozens of other Carter Family classics remain standards of American music.

June, then, was born into country music royalty, joining with her sisters and cousins while still in elementary school to perform on radio shows with their parents, as the Carter Family sound was beamed across the North American continent. The most boisterous of the Carter kids, young June quickly developed her own following, with her poise and comedic talents providing her with her first musical identity.

When the “original” Carters disbanded in 1943, it was Maybelle and Eck who picked up the mantle, continuing the family act with their three daughters. With Eck managing the group, “The Carter Sisters and Mother Maybelle” spent the rest of the decade establishing a succession of residencies at radio stations and barn dances across the heartland: WRNL and then the WRVA Old Dominion Barn Dance in Richmond; the Tennessee Barn Dance at WNOX in Knoxville; Springfield, Missouri’s KWTO; and ultimately, at the biggest show of them all, WSM’s Grand Ol’ Opry in Nashville in 1950. By that time, June was already a solo force, having recorded a Top 10 single with Homer & Jethro, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” in 1949 at age 19.

In 1951, June and her family performed with Hank Williams; she would sing at his funeral soon after.  A force of nature that few could contain, June married the Opry’s biggest heartthrob and country music’s newest, biggest star, Carl Smith, in 1952, although the marriage could not contain them both, and was short-lived. While they were being managed by Col. Tom Parker, the Carters opened for Elvis on tours in five states in early 1956. (She mended his torn clothes when they were ripped apart by screaming girls and listened to his dreams for the future.)  Later that year, June turned her attentions to acting.

“Beautiful, blonde June Carter” would be “discovered” by the renowned director, Elia Kazan, and was accepted into New York’s Neighborhood Playhouse drama school, famous for its scores of alumni, including Grace Kelly, Gregory Peck and Robert Duvall, under the tutelage of noted theater actors and teachers Sandy Meisner and Lee Strasberg.  (June’s acting talent came in handy when Presley asked her to help him prepare for the screen test for his first movie, Love Me Tender, in 1956.) At the same time, she continued her music career, commuting back to Nashville every weekend to fulfill her commitment to the Opry. She also was a single mother, raising baby Carlene “on the road.”

This dual path resulted in extensive national television exposure on programs such as GunsmokeThe Garry Moore Show; and The Jackie Gleason Show; as well as Opry broadcasts, producing unique and diverse friendships . She hung out and swapped songs with the distinctly non-Nashville Eartha Kitt; the sultry chanteuse personally introduced June to her recording of “The Heel,” sharing that the bizarre story of a wife’s plan to kill her cheating man was “perfect” for June to sing (which she did, in a 1961 recording). She and Patsy Cline babysat each other’s kids, which now included daughter Rosey, born to June and her second husband, Nashville businessman Rip Nix. Later in life, her best friends were one of her Virginia high school classmates from 50 years before, and Ruth Graham, wife of the Reverend Billy.

Of course, though, it was her marriage and musical collaborations with Johnny Cash that inspired generations of fans and lovers of love everywhere. She joined the Cash touring troupe in 1962, and was sitting at her kitchen table at home in Madison, Tennessee when she penned the immortal words that would come to describe the searing, burning torment that she felt as she and Johnny fell into the inferno that would be her a “Ring of Fire.” His 1963 recording of June’s anguished anthem was one of his biggest hits, and is considered one of the greatest songs in the history of country music, one that forever defines June Carter’s legacy.

Cash-Carter collaborations would earn two Grammy Awards—“Jackson” in 1968 and “If I Were a Carpenter” in 1971—but it is their “Johnny and June” love story that still captivates. They married in 1968, just as Johnny was becoming the biggest musical artist in the world, and together they welcomed their son, John Carter Cash, in 1970.  For 35 years, the Cashes exemplified the human condition in all its forms, from the incredible peaks of success to times of heartbreak and loss. Through it all, June was the rock that kept her family together, choosing the role of “holder-upper” over her career, all the while connecting the origins of the music form that her own flesh and blood had pioneered to the modern day.

Late in her life, after spending decades being the quieter partner to the overwhelming, singular presence that was Johnny Cash, June emerged from shadows that never fit her and she never deserved, to receive her rightful due, triumphantly returning to remind the world of her legacy and her proper place in music history, in a series of recordings produced by John Carter.  Her poignant interpretation of “Keep on the Sunny Side”—the original Carters’ theme song–and her albums Press On—named for her own philosophy of life– and Wildwood Flower all received Grammys, giving her a total of five. She would also be inducted into the Christian Music Hall of Fame.

By the time of her death in 2003, and perhaps even more so today, it was clear all along that June Carter Cash was a legend hiding in plain sight.

Oh, the fire went wild.

 
*Biography courtesy of JuneCarterCash.com
 
Join us Sunday June 23, 2024 as we celebrate June Carter. We will also be remembering Ralph Stanley. 
 
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