How appropriate that Johnny and June Carter Cash were honored last week with the release of simultaneous retrospectives, "The Legend" and "Keep on the Sunny Side: Her Life in Music." The career achievements and cultural impact of the two may have differed, but their lives were entwined for more than 40 years, the last 35 in marriage. They died only four months apart in 2003.
June Carter was country royalty long before Johnny Cash: Her mother, uncle and aunt were Maybelle, A.P. and Sara Carter of the Carter Family, the first family of country music, and she had a No. 1 country hit seven years before meeting her future husband. June gradually subordinated her career to Johnny's; he always credited her with forcing him to shake his addiction to amphetamines and encouraging his spiritual development. Theirs remained one of popular music's sweetest and most enduring songs, and it makes sense to recognize that harmony concurrently.
"The Legend" celebrates the 50th anniversary of Cash's first recordings for the Sun label, a streak that started with the June 21, 1955, release of the single "Hey Porter"/"Cry, Cry, Cry." It also ties in neatly with the November release of the film "Walk the Line." That biopic concentrates on Cash's life in the 1950s and '60s, from the time he made his first rockabilly recordings at Sun, alongside label mates Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis, to when he became a mainstream cultural figure through his prison concerts. Cash is being portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix, Carter by Reese Witherspoon.
Among the 104 tracks on "The Legend" (seven never before issued) are 18 from Sun, the ones that set Cash on his glory road. What's surprising on the Sun sides is the authority of his already weathered baritone. One of the most recognizable voices in American music sounded that way from the very beginning.
Cash would find his post-rockabilly footing in country with the terse "Folsom Prison Blues" and the testimonial "I Walk the Line," but Sun's owner, Sam Phillips, never showed much interest in the gospel songs Cash favored. Columbia Records snagged Cash in 1958 with a good advance and a promise that he'd have free rein regarding subject matter and style.
Over the next decade, Cash would record numerous albums that blurred the boundaries of country, folk and rock, beginning with two classics, "The Fabulous Johnny Cash" and "Hymns by Johnny Cash," and culminating in the live albums recorded at the Folsom and San Quentin prisons. Various concept albums -- about trains, cowboys, Native Americans, labor -- created a broad, encompassing portrait of this country that led U2 guitarist the Edge to say, "Before I got to see America with my own eyes, I had a picture of it through Johnny Cash's singing."
"The Legend" has four discs, organized thematically. The first, "Win, Place and Show," collects 13 No. 1 country hits, as well as 14 No. 2s and 3s recorded between 1956 and 1979, from the original ballad of faithfulness "I Walk the Line" to "Ring of Fire," written by June Carter and Merle Kilgore. The 1968 live version of "Folsom Prison Blues" that made Cash a superstar still packs a wallop, as does the doleful "Don't Take Your Guns to Town."
The second disc, "Old Favorites and New," features singles and album tracks that didn't cross into the top three, but were often better than those that did: Sun singles "Hey Porter," "Get Rhythm" and "Big River," the aching "I Still Miss Someone," a stark reading of Bruce Springsteen's "Highway Patrolman" and a stately take on Bob Dylan's "Forever Young." Cash stayed in tune with rock and country's best young writers, but the third disc, "The Great American Songbook," finds him just as connected to tradition, from public-domain folk and blues to bedrock songwriters A.P. Carter, Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams.
The final disc, "Family and Friends," features Cash collaborations with June, Maybelle Carter and the Carter Family, daughter Rosanne Cash and stepdaughter Carlene Carter. The friends are a pretty stellar bunch, including Dylan (whom Cash introduced to Nashville in the '60s), Ray Charles, U2 and the Highwaymen. Sadly, there's nothing from his '90s renaissance with producer Rick Rubin, who returned Cash to the simple acoustic sound of his Sun singles.
A deluxe edition of "The Legend" includes a hardcover book, color lithograph portrait and hour-long DVD of a 1980 television special, "Johnny Cash: The First 25 Years." Most interesting, though, is the bonus CD, "Johnny Cash on the Air," a tape recording of Cash's very first radio appearance, on Memphis's KWEM in 1954, months before he auditioned for Sun. Backed by the Tennessee Two (guitarist Luther Perkins and bassist Marshall Grant), Cash delivers four songs, two of them originals ("Wide Open Road" and "One More Ride"), and proves a pretty good pitchman for his 15-minute show's sponsor, the Home Equipment Co.
The disc ends with a KWEM promo for the legendary August 1955 Country Jamboree at Memphis's Overton Park Shell, where Elvis Presley is billed below Webb Pierce and Red Sovine. Around this time, Elvis gave June Carter a copy of a record that had recently bumped his "I Forgot to Remember to Forget" out of the top spot on Memphis radio -- newcomer Johnny Cash's "Hey Porter."
The two-disc "Keep on the Sunny Side" begins with a 30-second snippet of 10-year-old June lending her voice to the Original Carter Family's theme song, performed in 1939 on the Texican border station XERA, which could be heard all over the country. June had already been singing for two years with her sisters Helen and Anita; after the Original Carter Family broke up in the early '40s, they regrouped as the Carter Sisters, recording with and without Mother Maybelle. June's one and only No. 1 was 1949's parody of "Baby, It's Cold Outside," which paired her with the country comedy duo Homer & Jethro (and a young Chet Atkins on guitar).
Carter had limited range and occasional trouble singing on key, but she compensated with boundless energy and a fine comedic sense. (She once said she "tried to cover up the bad notes with laughter.")
Her live show, peppered with skits and monologues, is likely part of what attracted Cash, who first saw her on a senior class trip to the Grand Ole Opry in 1950.
At their first meeting -- in 1956, when he was a rising star with a No. 1 country hit, "I Walk the Line" -- Cash told Carter he was going to marry her someday. Carter's 1953 duet with first husband Carl Smith on "Love Oh Crazy Love" would prove prophetic; 1963's "Ring of Fire" was a thinly veiled confession of her intense love for Cash.
There are three basic groupings here: spunky '50s tracks like "Root Hog or Die," "Juke Box Blues," "No Swallerin' Place" and "Country Girl"; the traditional fare favored by the Carter Family and Carter Sisters; and collaborations with Cash, including "Jackson," "If I Were a Carpenter" and "Ring of Fire" (Carter's version, recorded a year after Cash's, drops the mariachi horns). They made less music on record than onstage, where June's charm and flirtatious personality transformed the sometimes brooding Johnny into a romantic foil.
Despite having some notable chart successes with singles, June Carter Cash didn't cut an album until 1975's Cash-produced "Appalachian Pride." The first disc of the "Sunny Side" set collects her many singles from the '50s and '60s, mostly for Columbia. The second features all 10 tracks from "Appalachian Pride" (plus the unreleased "Song to John"), as well as several of the gospel songs that were constants in both artists' repertoire, and a final reprise of "Keep on the Sunny Side."
That last track was recorded in Carter's living room shortly before her death. Appropriately, it widens the unbroken family circle to include an ailing Johnny, Carlene (her daughter with Carl Smith) as well as a granddaughter, daughter-in-law and niece. Cash and Carter's voices are plainly frail but also imbued with great wisdom and warmth. Over four decades, June Carter would be Johnny Cash's sometime duet partner, but she was also his constant companion and emotional anchor. They knew a dark and troubled side of life, but there was a bright and sunny side, too, and you can hear it in their music.