Born into country music royalty, American singer and songwriter June Carter Cash (1929–2003) enjoyed several claims to fame. The niece of A. P. Carter, she was the daughter of Mother Maybelle, both founders of the seminal folk and country group the Carter Family. Carter Cash was also part of the Carter Sisters, before evolving into a Minnie Pearl style singer-comedienne and the mother of 1990s country hitmaker Carlene Carter. Yet, thanks in no small part to the popular 2005 biopic Walk the Line , she is best remembered for aiding the rise and survival of her third husband and frequent duet partner, Johnny Cash.
Born Valerie June Carter on June 23, 1929, in Maces Spring, Virginia, she was raised in the Clinch Mountain area by her father Ezra Carter and mother, the former Maybelle Addington. Father Ezra Carter was the brother of Carter Family founder/songwriter A. P. Carter, while Mother Maybelle was a cousin through marriage to his singing wife, Sara. Maybelle grew up playing banjo, Autoharp, and guitar. In the process, she developed a thumb-pick-based guitar style known as the Carter scratch, which she employed with great success on the Carter Family's recordings, particularly the classic "Wildwood Flower."
While husband Ezra earned his living working for the railroad, Mother Maybelle raised daughters Helen, June, and Anita to sing and play music when she was not busy with her father-in-law's group. Thanks to song publisher/entrepreneur Ralph Peer, the Carter Family had become perennial favorites with their RCA-Victor recordings of "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," "Keep on the Sunnyside," "I'm Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes," and dozens of others. The family band broadcast regularly from Del Rio, Texas, over radio station XERA. When Sara Carter, who had divorced A. P. in 1936, left the act to remarry, June and her
By 1943, she was singing regularly as an integral part of the Carter Sisters and Mother Maybelle. With Anita on upright bass, Helen switching off on guitar, accordion, and Autoharp, and June playing guitar and Autoharp, and of course the peerless Mother Maybelle on guitar, they were country music's first self-contained all-female band. Playing the old Carter Family repertoire and country gospel favorites of the era, the group became popular mainstays on such radio programs as the Old Dominion Barndance on WVRA, the Tennessee Barndance on WNOX, and KWTO's Ozark Jubilee .
Carter was not the best singer in her mother's group. That distinction belonged to sister, Anita, whose haunting soprano would grace gospel recordings for many years to come. However, sister June had nerve and wit, and she would play the dumbbell for laughs it that is what it took to get the audience's attention. She was also willing to divert from the Carter Sister's early policy of strictly folk and gospel. Accompanied by her father, in 1949 she went to New York to record with country cutups Homer and Jethro. Together, they did a parody of "Baby, It's Cold Outside," which rose to number nine on the country charts.
With a hit record under her belt, the little group moved to Tennessee and became regulars on the Grand Ole Opry . One of the people they brought with them to Music City was none other than Chet Atkins, who played with the act for the next two years while getting his own career established. (The Carters also helped the Louvin Brothers get their start on record.) The exposure on the Opry led to a couple of hit records on RCA for Anita Carter, most notably "Down the Trail of Achin' Hearts" and a contract for the Carter Sisters with Decca and later Columbia, where they recorded old-timey material well into the 1960s folk revival.
While not singing with her mother and sisters, June Carter tried her hand at comedy and acting. Early kinescopes of television appearances on the Grand Ole Opry and the Kate Smith Hour show her playing a frenetic, boy crazy hick—a more youthful version of Minnie Pearl's classic country character. Her knack for comedic timing, and willingness to do anything for a laugh, helped her punch up the weak material she performed. In sketches, she often uttered the catchphrase, "I am a good ol' girl" as a way of signaling to the audience that her character knew she was plain. As the decade wore on, and it became evident that Carter was indeed a lovely young woman, she dropped some of the hayseed affectations and used more pathos in her comedy routines. Encouraged by famed director Elia Kazan, Carter eventually moved to New York and studied under Lee Strasberg at the famed Actor's Studio.
In 1952, Carter married country singer Carl Smith. Largely forgotten today, the crooner scored 69 Top-40 country hits between 1951 and 1972. Best known for such Columbia smashes as "Let Old Mother Nature Have Her Way," "(When You Feel Like You're in Love) Don't Just Stand There," "Hey Joe," and "Loose Talk," Smith met June when he had employed the Carter Sisters to provide background vocals on one of his gospel sessions. Carter was enamored with the good-looking honky-tonk crooner, but the demands of show business eventually pulled them apart. Their five-year marriage produced one daughter, Rebecca Carlene Smith, better known as Carlene Carter, who grew up to record such early 1990s country hits as "I Fell in Love" and "Every Little Thing."
After divorcing Smith, Carter married a Nashville policeman named Edwin Nix in 1957, and they had one child, Rozanna. Still pursuing an acting career, she was billed as June Carter while performing in sketches on the Jack Paar Show , as well as playing supporting roles on Gunsmoke and The Adventures of Jim Bowie . She also co-starred with country stars Ferlin Husky and Faron Young in the 1958 low-budget film Country Music Holiday . By 1961, Carter put her acting career on a back burner to tour with her mother and sisters—now billed as the Carter Family—as they opened shows for Johnny Cash.
The Carters had known Johnny Cash since the mid-1950s, although sister June had not heard a single Cash record until another young firebrand named Elvis Presley played one for her on tour one night. (Presley used to tune his guitar to Cash's records.) According to legend, the second he was introduced to her backstage at the Grand Ole Opry , Cash blurted out that he would one day marry June Carter. Still married to Carl Smith at the time, Carter laughed it off, but as their paths continued to cross during the ensuing years, Cash and Carter developed a deep affection for each other. Indeed, that slow burning affection is hinted at in the song Carter co-wrote with Merle Kilgore, "Ring of Fire." Seething with mysticism and delayed gratification, Cash's recording of the tune stayed atop the country charts for seven weeks during mid-1963, and wrested his chart career out of the commercial doldrums.
Appearances from the mid-1960s on the TV show Shindig and the 1966 drive-in country music film The Road to Nashville , which also feature the Carter Family, show Cash at the height of his addiction to amphetamines. Skinny and twitchy, he performed well, but emitted the look of a junkie. Carter belatedly received a divorce from Edwin Nix in 1966, but before wedding Cash, she insisted that the Man in Black quit drugs and recommit to his faith. Her insistence that he clean up likely saved his life. The duo married in 1968 and gave birth to son John Carter Cash in 1970.
Acting as mother to her own children and stepmother to Cash's daughters from his first marriage, Tara, Kathy, and Rosanne, did not leave Carter much time to pursue a solo career. However, the material she cut with her husband set a benchmark for country duets. Despite her pedigree, recording with his wife could have been risky for Cash; he was an established mainstream star, while Carter was considered more of a personality than a singer. Yet on such efforts as their 1967 duet LP Carrying on with Johnny Cash and June Carter , they exhibited the type of sassy interplay typically found on Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood's pop hits. This is especially true on their Grammy winning remake of "Jackson" and her prickly composition "Long-Legged Guitar Pickin' Man," which boasts twangy guitar licks courtesy of Carl Perkins. Equally fine was their smolderingly romantic version of Tim Hardin's "If I Were a Carpenter," which also won a Grammy in 1970.
A staunch advocate of early country music, Cash would prominently feature his wife and the Carter Family in his live shows into the mid-1980s. June Carter Cash proved a popular feature on both her husband's live concerts and his ABC-TV show, where they would trade dry quips with deadly accuracy, or scream through the ultimate tale of a country wild child "Allegheny." Further, Carter and her sisters can be heard in fine form on the 1969 LP Johnny Cash at San Quentin , where June made prisoners laugh heartily when she joked, "Since we're the only girls on the show, I don't know what kind of show you're expecting out of us. Sometimes they do girly type kind of shows. But I've got one type of announcement—I don't want any confusion. This is as sexy as I'm gonna git!"
Carter Cash also encouraged her husband's pursuit of spiritual matters. During a trip to the Holy Land, she had a dream about her husband high atop a mountain reading about Jesus from the Bible. Subsequently, Cash financed and narrated the 1972 religious film Gospel Road , in which he cast his wife as Mary Magdalene. The film, featuring a blonde-haired blue-eyed actor playing Jesus Christ, was a critical failure and commercial flop, although it was later acquired by Reverend Billy Graham and shown to the faithful at fund-raising events.
During her rare slack moments, Carter wrote two volumes of her life story, Among My Klediments (1979) and From the Heart (1987). As Cash's career began to slowly wane during the 1980s and 1990s, Carter began taking acting roles again. Appearances on such TV programs as Little House on the Prairie, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman , and in several TV films allowed her to stretch her acting chops.
By the late 1990s, the alternative Country movement had inspired fresh appreciation of the Carter Family sounds, and she was invited by the independent Risk label, where she was the only country act, to record her first solo discs. "I've been on tour with John all these years," she told Robert Wooldridge of Country Standard Time in 1999. "I just worked along with him and didn't really think about stopping and recording again. He was always busy thinking about recording, but I was busy helping him get his songs together. I think I put him as my first priority."
Re-cutting such Carter Family staples as "Church in the Wildwood," "Hold Fast to the Right," and the Carter Sister's classic "Kneeling Drunkard's Pleas," she crafted affecting gasps of true warts'n'all old-time country music with a back porch feel. Enthralled, her peers rewarded the 1999 album Press On with a Grammy Award. As her husband's health failed, so, too, did Carter's. During heart valve replacement surgery, June Carter Cash died on May 15, 2003. She was honored with two posthumous Grammy Awards for her single "Keep on the Sunny Side" and her album Wildwood Flower . Her famous husband died four months after her own death. Their love story was celebrated in the Oscarwinning 2005 film Walk the Line , starring Joaquin Phoenix as Cash and Reese Witherspoon as June Carter Cash.
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