June Carter Cash has lived most of her 70 years in the shadow of her family. When she was growing up, her mother, aunt and uncle--the original Carter Family, who had brought country music down from the Clinch Mountains in 1927--helped usher the music into the modern era. Later, June's husband, Johnny Cash, became one of country music's most revered icons.
Last month, however, it was June's turn to take center stage as 200 people, mostly family and friends, gathered at the Cash estate north of Nashville to celebrate the release of "Press On," June's first solo album in nearly a quarter of a century.
"I've been real happy paddling along after John, being Mrs. Johnny Cash all these years," she told the assembled crowd. "But I'm sure thrilled to be up here singing for you tonight." Then she sat down with her Autoharp to perform songs from her new album.
June Carter Cash once had a thriving career of her own. She started performing as a child and later toured with the young Elvis Presley and starred at the Grand Ole Opry. She even studied acting in New York.
Ultimately, though, none of these experiences proved to be as consuming as her relationship with the Man in Black, whom she met, fell for and set out to reform during the early 1960s.
"I fell into a burning ring of fire/ I went down, down, down and the flames went higher," June wrote in her song "Ring of Fire," expressing the mix of ardor and trepidation that she felt at the time. Her trepidation was born of the fact that the man she loved was married--and addicted to drugs.
"It was a terrible shock when I found out John was taking pills," June recalls. She's sitting with her husband in the downstairs den of their sprawling three-story home overlooking Old Hickory Lake. "It was only later that I began to realize I was fighting him for his life."
"June saved my life," admits Johnny, 67. "And after that, she and her family kept me steadily on course at times when the rudder was shaky."
After she married Cash in 1968, June threw herself into raising the couple's "Brady Bunch"-style blended family. "John had four daughters the day I married him, and I had two," she explains. "Then I had our son, John Carter. I was still working on the road at the time, so he 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 has a 3-year-old of his own--June has lately been taking care of her husband, who suffers from Shy-Drager syndrome, a degenerative neurological disorder. Before that, she looked after her sister Helen, who died last year after a long illness. June has also been caring for her ailing younger sister Anita. Apart from touring and, occasionally, recording with her husband (the couple won Grammys in 1968 and '71), as well as releasing a 1975 solo album, the matriarch of the Carter-Cash clan has for more than three decades abandoned her career for family.
"June has been so devoted and attached to everything that I've been doing all these years that she never really put any thought into doing anything of her own," says Johnny.
"It was just a choice I made," says June. "I guess I could have tried to record, 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."
Recorded at the Cashes' home studio, a converted log cabin set deep in the woods on the couple's estate, "Press On" (Small Hairy Dog/Risk Records) embraces the homespun aesthetic that June learned from her mother, Maybelle, and from her Aunt Sara and Uncle A.P., the original Carter Family. With plenty of relatives and friends sitting in, the album, punctuated as it is by between-songs banter, harks back to the informal picking parties June knew while growing up in Maces Spring, Va.
The Cashes' son, John Carter, co-produced the album (with J.J. Blair); their erstwhile sons-in-law, Stuart and Crowell, played mandolin and guitar; and June's daughter Rosie sang harmony on three tracks. June also duets, her pitch wavering at times, with her husband on "The Far Side Banks of Jordan," a moving witness to the couple's belief that they will be reunited after they die.
"I believe my steps are growing wearier each day/ Got another journey on my mind," intones Johnny in his craggiest baritone. Written by Nashville schoolteacher Terry Smith, the song is very much in the spirit of "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," the Carter Family chestnut that closes "Press On."
The CD also includes two other Carter Family songs, "Meeting in the Air" and "Diamonds in the Rough." But unlike "Wildwood Flower," the 1988 reunion album that June made with her sisters and her daughter Carlene, "Press On" is not a tribute record. At least half of its 13 songs, eight of them written or co-written by June--including "Ring of Fire," which was originally a chart-topping hit for her husband--reflect on events unique to her life.
"I Used to Be Somebody" finds June looking back wistfully on the 1950s, the period of her life that she dubs her "rock-and-roll years."
"I used to be somebody/ Dear Lord, where have I been/ I ain't ever gonna see Elvis again," she sings, alluding to the time when the circles she ran in included Hank Williams, Patsy Cline and Presley. June is Hank Williams Jr.'s godmother; she and Cline were confidantes; and she was like a big sister to Elvis, teaching him, among other things, to tune a guitar and coaching him as he crammed for his first Hollywood screen test.
"I Used to Be Somebody" also mentions June's encounters with James Dean, Marlon Brando, Tennessee Williams and film director Elia Kazan. It was Kazan who persuaded June to move to New York to study acting at the Neighborhood Playhouse in 1956.
These were heady, and often conflicted, times for a young, recently divorced (from honky-tonk singer Carl Smith), God-fearing woman from Appalachia. "I'd never been exposed to so many things like I was in New York City," June admits. "You talk about sheltered. Sometimes I didn't know if I was coming or going."
This culture shock notwithstanding, she held her own in the drama classes of Sanford Meisner, the man who groomed such distinguished actors as Gregory Peck and Robert Duvall. "I think I could have been a good actor," June says.
Over the years, June has appeared on TV dozens of times, including spots on "Gunsmoke," "Little House on the Prairie" and "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman." She has also starred in several feature films--most recently in "The Apostle"--but in country circles, she is revered for her comedy bits, which include her "mud hole gag" and her memorable "Aunt Polly Carter."
"I'll never forget June Carter in this chartreuse-green chiffon dress, doing her comedy bit," says Opry star Connie Smith. "She kept me in stitches. Her timing was so great."
The queen of country comedy, the late Minnie Pearl, went one better, having once said that June had the best timing of any comic she had ever known.
"I started doing routines when I was a kid," June says. "My uncle A.P. used to say, 'We don't have any comedy on the show and it would really be great if you would do something.' So I did these improvisations. I could just talk about anything and it seemed to be funny. I had a great following. People would want to hug my neck and pinch me. They'd send me cakes in the mail. They'd crochet me bedspreads."
June's humor is evident throughout "Press On," but nowhere so much as on "Tiffany Anastasia Lowe," an original that brings to mind the stream-of-consciousness monologues of the young Bob Dylan. The song is a blithe but cautionary tale that June wrote for her granddaughter, an aspiring Hollywood actress enthralled by the movies of director Quentin Tarantino.
"So Tiffany, run and find an earthquake, girl, go jump in a crack/ Just don't let Quentin Tarantino find out where you're at/ 'Cause Quentin Tarantino makes the strangest movies that I've ever seen," June sings.
This humanity--this mix of levity, pathos and aplomb--is at the heart of the Carter Family legacy, which has vastly influenced all country music, and much rock and pop as well.
"I dedicate so much of what I've done to my mother, and to my Aunt Sara," says June. "They were both committed to doing the same kind of thing when they were together, to continuing on with it. I owe them so much, and still do. But I was living myself in those years. And with 'Press On,' I give you bits and pieces, little hunks of my life that I never bothered to talk about."
CAPTION: "It's amazing that I've got an album out after all this time," says June Carter Cash of "Press On," her first solo recording in nearly 25 years.
CAPTION: Standing by her man: June and Johnny Cash have been married since 1968.
CAPTION: With her new album, "I give you bits and pieces, little hunks of my life that I never bothered to talk about," says June Carter Cash.