June Carter Cash
Born Valerie June Carter, June 23, 1929, in Maces Springs, VA; died of complications following open–heart surgery, May 15, 2003, in Nashville, TN. Singer and songwriter. June Carter Cash, perhaps best known as the wife of country–music legend Johnny Cash, was an accomplished performer in her own right in the years before her marriage. Venerated by nearly every country–music star who emerged out of the Nashville scene since the mid–twentieth century, Cash was deemed "a link from the bedrock of the genre's history to its most respected modern practitioners" by Entertainment Weekly after her death.
Cash was born in 1929 in Maces Spring, Virginia, where her father Ezra farmed, but her mother, aunt and uncle had already formed a music group by then called the Carter Family that enjoyed some regional fame. The group's growing success led the family to relocate to Texas when Cash was ten years old, in order to be nearer to a powerful radio station in Del Rio, XERA, whose country–music programming could be heard as far north as Saskat-chewan, Canada. Cash's group, led by her famous parent, "Mother" Maybelle Carter, were a string–based ensemble and had their own show on XERA for a number of years, and Cash sang her own numbers and played the autoharp. The group broke up in 1943, but Cash and her sisters continued to perform with Maybelle, and made frequent appearances on the stage of Nashville's legendary Grand Ole Opry.
Cash sometimes joked that her voice was the weakest of the bunch, and so she honed her comic talents to compensate. Her performing style caught on, and she had her first solo hit in 1949, "Baby It's Cold Outside," which was a duet with an act called Homer and Jethro. She wed singer Carl Smith, with whom she had a daughter, Carlene, but the couple were divorced by 1957 and Cash then wed her second husband, Rip Nix, a Nashville police officer; they had a daughter named Rozanna. Her stage presence attracted the attention of leading theater and film director Elia Kazan, who suggested she pursue a performing career outside of the music business. Cash studied under Lee Strasberg, head of the famed Actors' Studio in New York, and also at the Neighborhood Playhouse in that city. In 1961, she was offered a slot on a planned television variety show for which an unknown Woody Allen was part of the comic–writing team, but Cash declined it in order to take a job touring with country–music star Johnny Cash.
Cash had met her future husband backstage at the Grand Ole Opry in 1956; by the early 1960s Johnny had enjoyed tremendous success but was plagued by addictions to prescription drugs and alcohol. On tour, June would hide his pills and even flush them down the toilet. She co–wrote his 1963 hit "Ring of Fire" with Merle Kilgore and the song became indelibly associated with his career. "Instead of the usual seraphic love language of teen–angels," noted her New York Times obituary by Ben Ratliff, "it used images of suffering and hellfire and is probably the most complicated popular love song in country music."
Both Cash's marriage to Nix and Johnny Cash's ended, and he proposed to her on stage one night in London, Ontario. They were wed in 1968, not long after their duet "Jackson," from the 1967 LP Carryin' On, won a Grammy. The duo won their second Grammy for the 1970 hit "If I Were a Carpenter," and though Cash performed frequently with her husband onstage for much of the following decade, she stopped making solo records almost entirely. She continued to take the occasional film and television role after the birth of their son, John Carter Cash, in 1970, and appeared in a small but compelling part as the deeply religious mother of Robert Duvall's minister character in the 1997 film The Apostle.
In a 1996 gig with her husband at the House of Blues in Hollywood, Cash sang a new song she had written about the vagaries of fame, "I Used to Be Somebody," which led to a new record deal. Her 1999 release Press On, won the Grammy in the folk–music category. "I've been really happy just traveling with John and being Mrs. Johnny Cash all these years," Los Angeles Times writer Geoff Boucher quoted her as saying. "But I'm also really happy and surprised that someone wanted me to make another album, and I'm real proud of what I've done."
Cash and her husband had homes in Nashville, in the Clinch Mountain area of Virginia, and in Jamaica. In 2003, she underwent surgery to replace a heart valve, and never recovered; she passed away at the age of 73. Cash is survived by her two daughters, a son, four stepdaughters, and several grandchildren. Her death was mourned as the passing of one of country's most beloved performers, and her husband died just four months later. Those close to the family claim he never recovered from her death. As he wrote in his autobiography, according to the Los Angeles Times 's Boucher, "What June did for me was post signs along the way, lift me when I was weak, encourage me when I was discouraged, and love me when I was alone and felt unlovable."
CNN.com , http://www.cnn.com/2003/SHOWBIZ/Music/05/15/june.carter.cash.obit.ap/i dex.html (May 16, 2003); Entertainment Weekly, May 30, 2003; Los Angeles Times, May 16, 2003, p. B13; New York Times, May 16, 2003, p. A23; People, June 2, 2003, p. 89; September 29, 2003, p. 78; Times (London), http://www.timesonline.co.uk (May 18, 2003); Washington Post, May 16, 2003, p. B6.
— Carol Brennan