". . . I would do wonderful things someday. I would leave these mountains, and by some miracle with some marvelous wisdom I would make kings and queens, presidents and other important people ask my advice and listen to me. I would share with them this wonderful world of Christ that was mine. They would understand, and peace would rule the world. Such a dream . . ." (June Carter, Among My Klediments)
To many June Carter was the wife and sometime singing partner of Johnny Cash; but to others she had a persona and career all her own. For many years she was a much loved performer on the Grand Old Opry, an intergral part of a family act that has been called the First Family of Country Music, and a talented singer, comedian, actress and writer.
Valerie June Carter was born on June 23rd, 1929 in Maces Springs, Virginia to Ezra (Eck) and Maybelle Carter. She was born into what is today considered The First Family of Country Music "The Carter Family". The family spent much of their first years years living in what is commonly referred to as Poor Valley. There June and her sisters Helen and Anita received their earliest education and lived out their early childhood. As a little girl June loved to follow her father Eck around. He’d put her on the back of his motorcycle and take her on trips through the south’s roads, leading Maybelle to give her the nickname "Junebug" because she stuck to her daddy like a bug.
"When I was about five years old, I would ride behind my daddy on his motorcycle. I rode all the way to Kingsport, Tennessee, behind Daddy, holding on for dear life and squealing with delight, my hair streaming in the breeze. There was no fear in me anywhere, even when Daddy ran his motorcycle into the ditch and I sailed into a corn field. I survived with only scratches and an eager desire to do anything my father did."
Some friends and family would jokingly say years later that the only thing June's sisters, Helen and Anita, ever agreed on was that June was their dad’s favorite.
When June was nine the Carter Family was invited to do a radio broadcast in Texas on the Mexican Border stations. The entire family went including young June. "What could I do? . . . I could hit a rabbit on the run with a rifle, I could hitch a log to the traces, I could dance. But you couldn't do any of those things on the radio. I was afraid." Though at first apprehensive about her standing as a singer it wasn't long before she was flailing away on her autoharp singing "Engine 143".
During this time an important lesson was learned for June. At the San Antonio school the Carter girls attended they were often ridiculed for their thick Viriginian accents, but June quickly learned that there was something good about being different and started hamming it up even more for her schoolmates to get a laugh.
"They gave us a free activity period, and if you could entertain, you could have the floor as long as you could hold their attention. In no time those poor unsuspecting little Texas children knew what a gravel flipper was, had heard all about my tadpoles, and were going home demanding their parents to see the Garden of Eden away back in Virginia."
While the Original Carter Family broke up a few years later, Maybelle continued to perform with her young daughters, calling themselves "Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters"; it wouldn't be until AP Carter's passing that they would begin calling themselves The Carter Family.
During these formative years June developed a comedy character called Aunt Polly, a real corn pone character that was extra ditzy with downhome coutnry charm. This character would later be given up in favor of a more sedate, but equally funny Little Junie Carter.
"The old circuits sometimes called for five shows a day. I learned to sleep in the car, get ready in five minutes, and tune a guitar in two. Sometimes it felt like I had little wool sweaters on my teeth. My body ached. Then I stopped a show with a rountine, and I finally had to face it-I was hooked. There would be no turning back now. I would be an entertainer. My life would be different. I would not go to college, would not marry Feddie Fugate back home and raise children, cook three meals a day, and be an average American housewife."
Ironically enough, June's biggest record during this time was not with her family, but rather a country comedy duo named Homer and Jethro. The three recorded a number of records, most notably a parody of Frank Loesser's "Baby, It's Cold Outside" and "Country Girl". In 1950 the Carters were asked to become members of the Grand Ole Opry. Their quartet of harmonies and June's side splitting comedy were crowd favorites and the Carter Family was one of the most successful acts at the Opry. At the Opry the Carter Family made friends with a talented singer by the name of Hank Williams. They quickly learned of his troubled home life and dependency on narcotics and they became a surrogate family for the tormented Williams.
In the early 50s June met an up and coming performer named Carl Smith. The two were attracted to eachother and despite initial misgivings June agreed to wed him and became Mrs. Carl Smith. The couple had a daughter Rebecca Carlene (later to be known as singer Carlene Carter), but the marriage quickly went south and they were separated before her birth.
ROCK 'N' ROLL YEARS
Dispirited by her failed marriage June took the advice of director Elia Kazan and began studying acting at the Actor's Studio in New York City in 1956 (she would later transfer to the Neighborhood Playhouse). There she became good friends with actors Robert Duvall and James Dean.
But June craved security and after two years she moved back home to Tennessee and married Edwin "Rip" Nix, a police officer from Madison, Tennessee. The couple had a daughter named Rozanna Lea Nix soon thereafter. June continued to work show tours and perform on the Grand Ole Opry, working with such acts as Marty Robbins, Faron Young, and even opening for Elvis Presley.
But in November of 1961 June received an invitation to perform at the Big D Jamboree in Dallas, Texas on Johnny Cash's bill. June had met Johnny Cash several years earlier at the Grand Ole Opry when he walked up to her and said "I'm going to marry you someday"; her reply was a demure "I can't wait". Now several years later, Johnny found that he was still taken with June and asked if she would like to tour with him some more. In 1962 June Carter joined the Johnny Cash show in a move that would forever change her life.
RING OF FIRE
Almost immediately June knew there was something different about Johnny Cash, but it wasn't until months later she realized he was taking an unorthodox amount of pills. June had seen Hank Williams slow destruction first hand and was determined not to allow the same fate to happen to Johnny. Still, she came to realize that her battle may not be entirely altruistic. June realized she was falling in love with Cash. The realization came as a shock and she was plagued by guilt because she was still married to Nix and Cash to his first wife Vivian. Thus, began the workings of the song "Ring Of Fire".
"I was frightened by his way of life. I'd watched Hank Williams die . . . So I thought, 'I can't fall in love with this man, but it's just like a ring of fire.' I wanted so to play the song for John, but I knew he would see right through me. So I gave it to my sister Anita. When John heard it he said, 'I want to do that song.'"
During this time June continued to make her own compositions, with the help of Merle Kilgore (who had helped her hone down Ring of Fire). Some of her most notable songs were written during this era; along with Ring of Fire, she composed Tall Lover Man; Mama, Teach Me; I Had A Dream (recorded by Flatt and Scruggs) and Happiness Is You (written with Cash) among others.
With Johnny Cash June recorded her first album without her family, a collection of duets entitled "Carryin' On With Johnny Cash and June Carter". The album would spawn their most popular duet "Jackson"; which would go on to win them a Grammy for Country Duo of the Year.
During this time Cash continued to pursue Carter but she demured saying she would have nothing to do with him until he was free from drugs. In the fall of 1967 Cash finally faced his demons and began detox, the now divorced June stayed by his side helping him through the weeks of isolation. The two began attending church services together and the following February Cash proposed onstage.
THE IDEAL COUPLE
At this same time Johnny Cash's career seemed to take off with remarkable resonance, which included a prime time TV Show. June was a huge hit on the show, she'd come out and do a rip roaring version of one of their hit duets; often times they'd get requests for June to do a solo slot and they'd be more than happy to oblige.
In March of 1970 the couple were blessed with a child, John Carter Cash, the first son for either one of them. The rest of the seventies continued on at much the same pace. In this time period June would write her first book, an autobiography entitled "Among My Klediments". It would recount her early childhood growing up in Poor Valley and take an often hilarious and, as one reviewer put it, "Holly Golightly" approach to life. June also recorded her first solo album in 1975, Appalachian Pride, a collection of Carter Family and folk songs, it would be her last solo record for 25 years.
"John and June always seemed like the ideal couple. They always seemed so concerned, or foolish, about one another. You can really tell if it's make-believe of put-on or the real thing. Theirs was the real, real thing. They seemed very devoted to one another. The way he'd speak to her, in a kind voice. Anything she wanted, why, it was all right, she could go ahead and do it. He just seemed to want to give her things all the time, and she was awful kind and good to him. They seemed very suited to one another."
Though Cash would sometimes relapse into drug use he would always come back from the dead and despite such difficulties that arose from these times to all the world Johnny Cash and June Carter would remain the ideal couple and be viewed as such well after their deaths.
"There's unconditional love there. You hear that phrase a lor but it's real with me and her. She loves me in spite of everything, in spite of myself. She has saved my life more than once. She's always been there with her love, and it has certainly made me forget the pain for a long time, many times. When it gets dark and everybody's gone home and the lights are turned off, it's just me and her." (Johnny Cash, Rolling Stone)
In the mid-seventies June had a dream that turned into the Cashs' movie production "The Gospel Road" which was a recounting of the life and death of Jesus Christ, narrated by Johnny Cash; June played Mary Magdalene. The couple would remark in later years that it was their most important project.
Through the eighties and into the nineties June continued to sing and perform with the Carter Family on the Johnny Cash Show. Throughout this period she continued to write music and worked on writing her second book "From The Heart" a collection of unrelated biographical vignettes as well as appearing in a number of made for TV movies and television shows with her husband.
It was during this time that June's Christian faith seemed to flourish most. June had always been a confidant Christian and had often times given counseling to some of her more meandering contemporaries but through years of study and prayer her faith intensified and gave her a peace that she hadn't previously possessed.
"Why do we always climb that mountain until we stumble and fall over the top-make all the mistakes-pour out our hearts and souls-become sinful and lost in that desperate jungle of life? But something drives us on and we do it.
I've come a long way from that lonesome valley, and I've been lost in that jungle. And that's why I now cling to the basic things I was taught as a child back in Clinch Mountain. Because I've been over the mountain, and it's all vanity. I'm only what I am today because of the beginning."
I USED TO BE SOMEBODY
Ill health caused the Cashes to quit their full time touring schedule but they would occasionally make special guest appearances and in 1999, at the urging of her husband, June decided to record again. The album titled Press On was a collection of June's favorite songs, including such original songs as "I Used To Be Somebody", which chronicled her Rock 'n' Roll years spent in New York City, and "Tiffany Anastasia Lowe" about her grandaughter. June even did a few concerts to promote the album, and was invited to perform on the very youth oriented Lilith Fair Tour. The album went on to win a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album.
Despite declining health June decided to record another album in the late fall of 2002. This album "Wildwood Flower" would showcase almost entirely Carter Family songs. It would win June two more Grammys; one for Best Country Female Vocal Performance for her rendition of "Keep On The Sunny Side" and Best Contemporary Folk Album. The album would be released posthumously in September of 2003.
In May of that year June went to have heart surgery and a few days later went into a vegetative coma. She died May 15, 2003 and was laid to rest in Hendersonville Memorial Gardens near the graves of her parents and sister, Anita. Johnny Cash would follow her less than four months later.
At June's funeral the praises abounded. People from all walks of life came from all over the world to share their love for the woman who had so imapcted their lives. One friend summed it up best, "the world will never be the same without her, nor will heaven, be the same with her there.’’