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Cash, (Valerie) June Carter

Cash, (Valerie) June Carter

(b. 23 June 1929 in Maces Springs, Virginia; d. 15 May 2003 in Nashville, Tennessee), Grammy Award–winning singer, songwriter, musician, comedian, actress, a member of the celebrated Carter Family, and wife of the legendary country singer Johnny Cash.

Cash was the second of three daughters born to Ezra Carter, a railway mail clerk and farmer, and Maybelle (Addington) Carter, a musician and member of the original Carter Family, one of the earliest and most influential radio and recording groups in country music. Cash and her sisters were raised in a large house at the foot of Clinch Mountain, Virginia, where they were always well fed and clothed. A freckle-faced tomboy, she enjoyed swimming, fishing, and helping with the chores when not attending Maces Springs School. On Sundays she attended the Mount Vernon Methodist Church, the foundation of her profound Christian faith.

In 1939 the sisters accompanied the Carter Family to San Antonio, Texas, to perform on the megawatt border radio station XERA. Of the three, Cash was perhaps the least musically gifted, but she was certainly the most enthusiastic. She learned to play the autoharp in one week and at age ten made her solo debut performing “Engine 143.” She also had a flair for comedy, exaggerating her broad Appalachian accent for comic effect and later creating hillbilly characters and cornpone-comedy routines. After a short stint on WBT in Charlotte, North Carolina, the original Carter Family disbanded in 1943. Mother and daughters quickly regrouped as Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters and debuted on 1 June 1943 on WRNL in Richmond, Virginia. Cash attended John Marshall High School, where she learned to be a “Richmond Girl,” or proper southern lady. Onstage, however, she cavorted as the hilariously screwball “Aunt Polly Carter,” a backwoods character of her own invention. After Cash’s graduation in 1946 the Carters moved to WRVA in the same city, performing on the Old Dominion Barn Dance, and then to the Midday Merry-Go Round on WNOX in Knoxville, Tennessee, and finally to KWTO in Springfield, Missouri, in 1949. That same year Cash recorded a comedy version of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” with the hillbilly duo Homer and Jethro; it rose to number nine on the country charts.

In April 1950 Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters moved to Nashville, Tennessee, and debuted on WSM’s Grand Ole Opry, the nation’s premier country music venue. They were so well received, Cash recalled, “the roof came offa the building.” Cash shone as a comedian at the Grand Ole Opry. Audiences reveled in the madcap antics of “Little Junie Carter,” another hillbilly character, and Cash’s repertoire of novelty numbers such as “Bashful Rascal” and “Root Hog or Die.” Cash was soon one of the Opry’s most popular stars and one of its prettiest. A shapely five-foot-two with thick chestnut hair and sparkling blue eyes, she performed alongside such luminaries as Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb, and a then unknown Elvis Presley (who first introduced Cash to the music of Johnny Cash, playing his records on jukeboxes when they toured together in 1955). She also befriended the brilliant but doomed Hank Williams, who nearly shot Cash one night when he fired a pistol during a drunken dispute with his estranged wife. On 9 July 1952 Cash wed honky-tonk crooner Carl Smith, and they enjoyed some success singing mawkish duets. By the time their daughter, Rebecca Carlene (later to record as Carlene Carter), was born in 1955, however, their marriage was crumbling due to Smith’s womanizing.

After separating from Smith (they divorced in 1956), Cash moved to New York City to study acting at the suggestion of the director Elia Kazan, who had seen her perform at the Grand Ole Opry. She rented an apartment at 20 East Sixty-seventh Street and studied with Sanford Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse. During this time she became lifelong friends with the actor Robert Duvall and dated the actor James Dean. She also made appearances on television variety shows and on episodes of Gunsmoke and The Adventures of Jim Bowie. One night in 1956 Cash was backstage at the Grand Ole Opry when a young man approached her and said, “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash, and I’m going to marry you someday.” Cash was intrigued by the brooding, dark-eyed singer and his brash assertion, but nothing came of it as both were then otherwise engaged.

In 1957 Cash moved back to Nashville, where she married local police officer Edwin “Rip” Nix on 11 November 1957. After her second daughter was born in 1958, Cash resumed performing in country music shows with such stars as Buck Owens and Eddy Arnold. She did not see much of Johnny Cash until he booked her for his road show at the Big D Jamboree in Dallas, Texas, on 7 December 1961. The following year she became a show regular. As they toured, a powerful attraction developed between the two that was readily apparent from their flirtatious onstage banter and heartfelt duets. (A collection of their duets, Carryin’ On with Johnny Cash and June Carter, would be released by Columbia in 1967.) Although still married to his first wife, Johnny Cash had fallen for June; June had fallen for him, although she was wracked by guilt over her marriage to Nix, whom she would not divorce until 1966. Her sense of having fallen into a fiery pit and of “literally burning alive” with her all-consuming passion for Johnny Cash inspired the song “Ring of Fire,” with its imagery of rising flames echoing both the blaze of hellfire and the heat of physical desire. Cowritten with Merle Kilgore in 1962, the song was a huge hit for Johnny Cash the following year.

June soon discovered that Johnny Cash was seriously addicted to the amphetamines he had been using since the 1950s to cope with his grueling schedule. She tried to help, fighting with him relentlessly and searching his rooms for pills that she would flush down the toilet. But Johnny Cash continued abusing amphetamines in such ever-increasing doses that by 1965 she feared for his life. “He should have died a thousand times from an overdose or a wreck,” she later recalled, “but God never let him go, and neither did I.” Johnny Cash finally quit drugs for good in 1967, but only after June moved into his mansion in Hendersonville, Tennessee, and stayed and prayed with him as he went through the hell of withdrawal. That fall Johnny Cash famously proposed onstage at a concert in London, Ontario, and the couple wed on 1 March 1968, the same week their rollicking “Jackson” won a Grammy Award for Best Country Performance by a Duo. “If I Were a Carpenter” won them another Grammy in 1970.

Following the birth of their son, John Carter Cash, on 3 March 1970, June put her solo career on hold and withdrew from the spotlight for most of the 1970s and 1980s to concentrate on her role as a Christian wife and mother. Her ambition, she felt, had led her only to unhappiness. So now, as her husband’s career flourished, she was content to remain in his shadow: “I’ve found more happiness through John’s career than I ever did through my own,” she later explained. In 1975 she did manage to release her first solo album, Appalachian Pride, and in the 1990s returned to acting, appearing on television’s Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman and in Robert Duvall’s critically acclaimed film The Apostle (1997). In 1999, at the urging of her husband, she released a second album, Press On. A “rootsy” stripped-down acoustic album, it featured a mixture of old Carter Family favorites and original compositions including her version of “Ring of Fire.” It won a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album. A highlight of the album was her death-tinged gospel duet with Johnny Cash, “The Far Side of the Banks of Jordan.” They had recorded the song together before but now it held a new poignancy, as both husband and wife had been in failing health for years.

Cash was fitted with a pacemaker in 2001 and two years later underwent surgery to replace a heart valve. She died of complications following surgery in Baptist Hospital, surrounded by family and friends. A memorial service was held at the First Baptist Church in Hendersonville, Tennessee, on 18 May 2003, and she was buried the next day in Hendersonville Memorial Gardens. Cash’s final album, Wildwood Flower, was released posthumously in September 2003, winning Grammy Awards for Best Traditional Folk Album and Best Female Country Vocal Performance.

Although known primarily as the wife of Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash was a country star in her own right. Her comedic talent was considerable, and “Ring of Fire” has become an enduring country classic and popular American standard. Her contributions to country music span seven decades, encompassing childhood radio performances, hillbilly hits and novelty numbers, recordings with remnants of the Carter Family, and collaborations with Johnny Cash. Moreover, her last albums helped preserve and popularize the rich musical heritage of her native Appalachia that was first introduced to the American mainstream by the original Carter Family generations ago.

Cash wrote an autobiography, Among My Klediments (1979), and a book of memoirs, From the Heart (1987). Additional biographical material is in Mark Zwonitzer with Charles Hirschberg, Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone? The Carter Family and Their Legacy in American Music (2002). An in-depth profile of Cash is included in Joan Dew, Singers and Sweethearts: The Women of Country Music (1977). Obituaries are in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times (both 16 May 2003).

Michael McLean

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