A revered figure in the history of country music, June Carter Cash was the scion of the Carter Family, one of the most influential acts in the history of country music, and later the wife and saving grace of Johnny Cash, to whom she remained married for over four decades. She began performing with her family at the age of 10, and grew into a spirited comic performer and audience favorite at the Grand Ole Opry. In 1962, she toured with and fell in love with Cash, who was in the grip of drug addiction. Despite both being married at the time, she stood by Cash, helping him through his ordeal and eventually marrying him in 1968. Carter put her own career on hold throughout the 1970s and 1980s to raise a family with Cash, though she occasionally appeared in television movies opposite her husband. In 1999, she revived her solo career with Press On, a collection of traditional country songs that earned her a Grammy. Carter died from complications following heart surgery in 2003, devastating not only Cash, who would pass on four months later, but the country music industry as a whole, which viewed her as a symbol of musical integrity and spirituality. Her life and legacy remained a testament to the healing power of music and faith in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.
Born Valerie June Carter on June 23, 1929 in Maces Springs, VA, she was one of three daughters by Ezra J. Carter and his wife, Maybelle, who was known to millions of music fans as Mother Maybelle of the legendary Carter Family, a singing trio whose harmonies and guitar playing were a defining influence on 20th century country and folk music. June Carter began performing with the Carter Family at the age of nine; initially, she was terrified of the idea, but found her niche as a comedy act by playing up her strong Virginia accent via a broad "corn pone" character called Aunt Polly. When the Carter Family stopped recording, Maybelle and her daughters launched their own group, Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters, playing extensively throughout the eastern United States at live shows and contract engagements with various radio stations.
In 1949, Carter earned a Top 10 hit on the country charts with a parody of the Frank Loesser pop standard "Baby, It's Cold Outside." Recorded with the popular country comedy duo of Homer and Jethro, the song also broke the Top 40 on the pop singles chart, and established Carter as the breakout star of the sister act. The following year, Maybelle and the Carter Sisters were made part of the Grand Ole Opry's musical company. There, Carter became an audience favorite as a comic foil to many of the Opry's biggest stars, including Faron Young and Webb Pierce. She was also introduced to a number of significant performers, including Hank Williams, whose troubled life spurred Maybelle and her daughters to take him under their wing as a surrogate family. Carter also met a young Memphis singer named Elvis Presley, who introduced her to his Sun Records label mate, Johnny Cash, who reportedly told her at their first meeting that he would someday marry her.
At the time, both Cash and Carter were married; Carter's husband was Carl Smith, a honky-tonk singer on the Opry bill. Their union produced a daughter, Rebecca Carlene, who would later become an outspoken country singer in her own right. But the demands of touring, as well as Smith's carousing habits - for which he was often accompanied by Johnny Cash - led to their scandalous divorce in 1956. Carter found a welcome diversion in acting, which she studied at the Actor's Studio in New York City on the suggestion of director Elia Kazan. There, she befriended such future iconic talents as James Dean and Robert Duvall, and made her television debut in a 1957 episode of "Gunsmoke" (CBS, 1955-1975). But Carter was unsettled by the instability of the actor's life, and soon returned to Nashville and the Grand Ole Opry. She also married again, this time to police officer Edwin "Rip" Nix, with whom she had a daughter, singer-songwriter Rosie Nix Adams.
In November 1961, she was invited to join the bill at the Big D Jamboree in Dallas, TX. The headliner was Johnny Cash, who had not forgotten his first encounter with Carter at the Opry, and asked her to join his tour in 1962. Carter soon discovered that Cash was in the grip of a powerful addiction to prescription pills, and sought to help him avoid the same fate that had befallen Hank Williams. Over time, she was shocked to find that her care had turned to love, which left her wracked with guilt, as both she and Cash were still married. Her inner turmoil led her to co-write "Ring of Fire" with Merle Kilgore in 1963, which would become one of Cash's biggest hits that same year.
Both Carter and Cash left their respective spouses in 1966, one year before Cash successfully recovered from his substance abuse issues. That same year, they scored a Grammy-winning No. 2 hit on the country charts with "Jackson," a semi-humorous tale of a married couple seeking to revive their romance. The following year, Cash proposed to Carter during a performance in London. They would marry on March 1, 1968 and remain together until their respective deaths in 2003. She would score another Grammy and Top 10 hit with a 1970 duet with Cash on Tim Hardin's "If I Were a Carpenter," but after the birth of their son John Carter Cash that same year, Carter stepped away from the spotlight to invest most of her energies into her marriage and family.
Carter would remain most visible on her husband's weekly variety series, "The Johnny Cash Show" (ABC, 1969-1971), where she often performed with her mother and sisters. Alongside her husband, she served as co-producer on "Gospel Road: A Story of Jesus" (1973), a long-gestating dream project in which she also played the role of Mary Magdalene. Two years later, she released her first solo album, a collection of traditional songs made famous by the Carter Family called Appalachian Pride (1975). Her first book, an often-humorous autobiography titled Among My Klediments (1979), detailed her early life and rise to fame, as well as her tumultuous relationship with Cash.
In the 1980s, Carter appeared in a number of made-for-TV features opposite her husband, including "Murder in Coweta County" (CBS, 1983) and a remake of "Stagecoach" (CBS, 1986) that also featured country stars Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson. She penned a second book, a collection of biographical vignettes called From the Heart (1987) and enjoyed a recurring role on "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman" (CBS, 1993-98) as a faith healer who reforms a gunslinger (Cash) through love. In 1997, she appeared opposite her fellow Actors' Studio alumnus Robert Duvall in the critically acclaimed "The Apostle" (1997).
Johnny Cash's health went into decline in the late '90s, and Carter remained by her husband's side as he recorded his final albums. He encouraged her to do the same, which resulted in Press On (1999), a stately collection of traditional tunes alongside a take of "Ring of Fire" that hewed closer to its original arrangement without the brass flourishes on Cash's version. The album won considerable praise, as well as a 1999 Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album. Carter toured briefly behind the album, including a few stops on Lilith Fair, but her own failing health forced her to curtail her live performances. She would record a second solo album, Wildwood Flower in 2003. Comprised entirely of Carter Family songs, it would bring to an end a career spent in service of song for over half a century.
In May of 2003, Carter underwent surgery for a heart valve replacement. She slipped into a vegetative coma from which she would never recover. On May 15, 2003, Carter died in the presence of her husband and family. She was laid to rest near the graves of her parents and sister Anita. Four months later, Cash himself would succumb to his numerous illnesses. Wildwood Flower would win two posthumous Grammys in 2003, including Best Traditional Folk Album. Carter's legacy would receive numerous tributes in the years that followed her death, most notably by Reese Witherspoon's spirited portrayal of the songstress in the Cash biopic Walk the Line, for which she received the Oscar for Best Actress.
By Paul Gaita