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Remembering June Carter Cash

By Derek Halsey
July 2003

On May 18th, 2003, Johnny Cash sat in the pew of the First Baptist Church in Hendersonville, Tennessee looking as old as he ever has. He was there for the funeral of his wife, June Carter Cash. During the past few years it had been Johnny who had the bad run of health. He has had many things go wrong for him physically in recent years and it was assumed that he would be the one to go first. But eleven long days before this Sunday afternoon, the love of his life went into the hospital for heart surgery. Everything seemed to go fine at first, but within a couple of days June had developed a bad complication and it was soon obvious that she was in real trouble. It was then that Johnny asked publicly for a worldwide prayer for her. She had done the same for him when he was hurting a few years earlier and it seemed to work as he recovered impressively soon after. The bedside vigil lasted until the next Thursday when death overtook June, and Johnny’s heart went with her.

Nearly 2,000 people showed up at the funeral service to hear Emmylou Harris sing "Angel Band," to hear the Oak Ridge Boys sing "Loving God, Loving Each Other," and to hear Sheryl Crow sing "On The Sea Of Galilee." There were also many testimonies given that afternoon about her accomplishments, her positive presence, and her life. At first it was decided to have a private service, but Johnny soon announced that June would have wanted it different and it was opened up to the public. Such was the personality of a truly sweet lady who by all accounts could charm with the best of them.

Valerie June Carter Cash was born into the first family of country music on June 23, 1929. June’s mother, Maybelle, was a part of the country music trio that A.P. Carter put together in the 1920s with his wife and Maybelle’s sister, Sara. Their recordings in Bristol, Tennessee in 1927, along with those by Jimmy Rodgers and the Stonemans, were engineered by Ralph Peer and marked the beginning of country music leaving the hills and valleys of Appalachia and going into the homes of people around the world.  By the 1940’s, however, the Carters went their separate ways and Maybelle went on the road with her own group billed as Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters. The ‘Sisters’ were Maybelle’s daughters, Anita, Helen, and June. June was perhaps the least musically talented of the bunch, which she herself would admit, but she had something special in her stage presence and comedic abilities that would charm an audience instantly.  

Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters started performing on the powerhouse Texas/ Mexico border radio station, XERA, in 1939. Later on in the 1940s they had their own radio show on WRNL in Richmond, Virginia. By 1950 they were regulars on the Grand Ole Opry. But June had her eye on more than just music back then, as she wanted to pursue an acting career. She took it so seriously that she went to New York City in the 1950s to study acting under Elia Kazan. While there she became a good friend of  James Dean. Yes, that James Dean. During that same decade June and her mother and sisters also spent a year as the warm-up act for none other than Elvis Presley. She talks about her time spent with Elvis and James in her autobiographical song, "I Used To Be Somebody," from her 1999 Grammy winning solo album, Press On. In it she tells of a late night walk she took with Dean around Greenwich Village as they talked about life and what it is like to be famous.  

By 1961 she had met Johnny Cash, worked with him occasionally, and by 1968 they were married. Unfortunately, it was just in time for her to be a part of some of Johnny’s most trying years. There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that Johnny would not be alive right now had it not been for June. Said Johnny in his autobiography;  "June said she knew me…knew the kernel of me, deep inside, beneath the drugs and deceit and despair and anger and selfishness, and knew my loneliness,…..She said she could help me." She reinforced a strong Christian belief in Johnny, flushed many a drug down the toilet, and pretty much saved his life.   

June was a big part of her husband’s successful television program in the 1960s, The Johnny Cash Show. The show showcased many performers not found on mainstream TV back then, including the likes of Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Gordon Lightfoot and Bob Dylan. During that same time the two of them won Grammy awards for their duets of "Jackson" and "If I Had A Hammer." She also co-wrote one of Johnny’s biggest hits, "Ring Of Fire," with Merle Kilgore.   

Along the way she made many friends and charmed many people with her sense of humor and a positive outlook on life. Since June’s untimely death a few of her peers and acquaintances took the time to recall some memories of time spent with her.

One of her last appearances as a singer (she did record a final album that will be out in September 2003) was on the Will The Circle Be Unbroken III album that the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band put out late 2002. June and Johnny both sang songs on it and Dirt Band member John McEuen remembers it this way: "It was obvious from the moment they both came in the studio for Circle III that they lived for each other and for music. June was as bright eyed when she got in front of the mic as she ever was, preparing to buckle down to ‘make a record.’ To be in the same room with these two was great, as you saw young lovers when they looked at each other, and you saw true fans of each other’s talents. I thought working with her mama, Maybelle, on the first Circle was as close to being around a guitar playing angel as I would ever get... until we played with her kid... I am sure they are both singing ‘Circle’ together by now, and I hope we all remember her bright spirit as it was while she was here."

Bluegrass musician Katie Laur remembers playing with her band at the Carter Fold in Hilton, Virginia. That is where Janette Carter, June’s cousin, has kept the Carter legacy alive by putting on various country and bluegrass shows throughout the year in the mountains that the Carters rose up out of. Katie remembers one night in particular:

"When my band played down at Janette Carter's store in Poor Valley, you never knew who would show up.  Sure enough, June showed up once.  She was radiant. We talked to her excitedly back stage. I had met Sara and Maybelle on other visits to the Carter Fold.  Sara was very fond of my version of her song, ‘You Are My Flower.’  How pleased I was at that compliment. When June visited, she sat close to the stage.  While Jeff Roberts was tuning the banjo, Buddy Griffin and I went into our usual non-stop bickering and suddenly I found myself saying that Buddy just wasn't a very good kisser.  June howled at that.  Buddy ran down into the audience, and kissed her hard.  After it was over, June pretended to be swooning. ‘You don't know what you're a missin', Katie,’ she called out to me. It brought down the house. 

"June Carter was a colossus of a woman, an Amazon. She straddled the raw beginnings of country music and went on to singing with the likes of Robert Duvall. She sang with her family almost all her formative years, and they were very popular recording artists. She encompasses all of country music to an unparalleled extent, and she was fun and warm.  I will always miss her."

Billy Joe Shaver has known Johnny and June for many a year. His wife worked as a hairdresser for Johnny’s company, the House Of Cash, for 14 years. Billy worked for Johnny for two years at an earlier time as a young songwriter. Here are some of Billy’s recollections of June: 

"June was kind, and generous, and beautiful. I don’t think she knew how beautiful she was. I really don’t. She was a beautiful woman. I was in a movie called The Apostle with her, and she played Robert Duvall’s mother and they had to put things on her to make her look older. She did real well in that. I really enjoyed being around her that time, and all the times I’ve ever been around her I’ve enjoyed it….. Her mother, Mama Maybelle, while she was alive, she sent me a letter. I still got it somewhere, it was real neat, kind of encouraging me, you know?  It’s been a long time ago. June always encouraged everybody around her, she’d never miss anybody. She was that way. 

"I worked for John over there for two years writing songs and somebody was always coming up and asking her this and asking her that. How in the world she managed her time, I don’t know. She was as busy as John, busier than John, really. She did everything. She was always helping this one and that one do this and that. And if you ever got broke you could always look to June to get it. You didn’t even have to come up with a story. You’d just ask her and she’d give it to you when times were lean."

I asked Billy what it was like to be friends with them, about opening up the funeral to the public, and if he ever had a chance to sit and talk with June about songwriting:

"No, not really. I never got into that with her. Seemed like it was always a person to person talk, it wasn’t like we were in the music business or anything. It was like a good friendship, a good person. I never got the chance to sit down with her very long because it seemed like there was always somebody around. With June, if you worked for them, or you ever even knew them very well, they considered you family. So that was it. You could call them day or night, and they’d answer the phone. I talked with John, oh, when he first started getting bad sick. I talked with him right on up until he really didn’t need to be talking to anybody like me on the phone. But they were always gracious and always gave us their telephone numbers. That’s pretty good, really, because in this business a lot of people don’t want to hear from nobody.  (On the funeral)… Yeah, I’m real glad about that because that is how she would have wanted it. I’m sure he did it because that’s the way she would have wanted it.  She was one of them, she was that way. That guy, I don’t know how in the world he’s going to go on. But, I’m sure he’ll find a way. He’s tough. But, boy, he sure did depend on her for a lot. She was a good mother, and a good wife. A great wife. She was just beautiful, and sweet. Everything that goes with beautiful, she was there."

Singer/songwriter Rodney Crowell was married to Rosanne Cash, Johnny’s daughter and June’s stepdaughter, but they were divorced a few years later. Rodney talked often of how June still wanted him to keep in touch after all of that, and Rodney, along with Norman Blake, Marty Stuart and Johnny, ended up playing on her 1999 Grammy winning album Press On. Here Rodney talks of a walk on the beach with June near the Cash’s home in Jamaica. It must be noted here that an official proclamation was read at the funeral from the Prime Minister of Jamaica, P.J. Patterson, to thank June for her many works of charity in that country. Here is Rodney’s story;

"Once, on vacation with my family at Cinnamon Hill, John and June's 18th century sugar plantation near Montego Bay, Jamaica, June and I were walking on the beach at Half Moon Bay. A weather worn lobster fisherman approached us respectfully, a stringer of ten fat lobster's, their claws wound tight with twine, strung over his shoulder.

’Ah...Missus Cash (everyone on the northwest end of the island new Johnny Cash and June Carter), would you be a needin' the likes of these fine lobster for your dinner this seevnin'. Five Amerikan for the lot?’  ‘My, goodness Abraham,’ (June knew every body on the northwest end of the island in return), June cooed, ‘that's a handsome catch you've got there. We'll take em' all for twenty-five American. And ... we'll give you another seventy five dollars, in advance, for three more stringers if you'll bring them up to Cinnamon Hill every other day.’ June gave me a coy look that would have charmed the pants off Captain Ahab. ‘I'd be glad to,’ I chirped, realizing she was waiting for me to pay the man. 

"Abraham held up his end of the bargain, delivering fresh lobster every other day for a week. Miss Dezna, Cinnamon Hill's fabulous cook, prepared lobster in secret ways only her mother and her mother's mother could have handed down. I thought it was the best hundred dollars I'd ever spent. A few weeks after we'd returned home, I received an envelope from The House of Cash. Inside was a hundred and three dollars, in cash, and a handwritten note. ‘The good folks on the island hold my son in law in high esteem. The three dollars is an advance on your next birthday. Love June.’ I gave the hundred dollars to one of those guys with a ‘will work for food’ sign, ‘Courtesy of June Carter Cash.’ The three dollars I keep in a small wooden box with my father’s watch, my mother's glasses, and a small velvet pouch with my four daughter’s baby teeth."

On a personal note, before all of this happened the editor here at GRITZ Magazine, Michael Buffalo Smith, was scheduled to interview June. I will let Mike tell it in his own words;

"I had just been talking to her publicist and we were going to interview her about her new CD release. I was very excited because Johnny and June are two of my all time favorites, and have been since the days when my sister and I, as kids, would impersonate them singing ‘Jackson’ and ‘Big Mouthed Woman.’ I am deeply saddened, especially for Johnny. I know how much he loved her. So many times throughout their lives June was his rock and pulled him through. God bless June, Johnny  and their family."

Before there was commercial country music, before there was honky tonk and outlaw country and the Nashville sound, before the blues were melded with country music to form rock and roll, before bluegrass music was born, there were the sounds of the Carter family seeping out of the hollers of Virginia. June was the last of that first Carter clan. She is survived by her daughters Carlene and Rozanna, her son John, and the rest of her family. She is also survived by Johnny. He will have to dig deep to find some internal strength in the days to come and will need the support that will, no doubt, be flowing his way. In an interview that June gave in 1999 she was asked about Johnny’s bad health at the time and she answered it this way;   

"You see, we're okay; even if we died and went to heaven, we're all right. I've always walked with thousands of angels. They've put me on their wings and they've carried me."  

On the night that June Carter Cash died there was a full eclipse of the moon. I would like to think that she checked it out on her way home, where her family then greeted her, where she got her bearings straight and adjusted to the other side, before she came back to surround Johnny and help him with the rest of his hard journey. 

June Carter Cash was 73 years old. 

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