By Robert K. Oermann
With a new album, the first lady of country, June Carter Cash, adds a grace note to her astounding life and career.
After close to 25 years of silence as a solo artist, June Carter Cash has returned to recording—and the 70-year-old singer couldn’t be happier. “It felt so good,” says Cash of her recent appearance at the Grand Old Opry on TNN. “They were so kind to me.”
How could they not be? Perhaps no one embodies the spirit of Nashville more than Carter Cash. She has the ultimate country pedigree: A well known singer-songwriter in her own right, she is also a descendant of one of the nation’s first recording stars, the Carter family, and is married to legendary Johnny Cash.
Her new album Press On, touches on all aspects of her long career—not the least of which is her resume as a television personality. Such songs as “I Used To Be Somebody” and “Gatsby’s Restaurant” make reference to her stint as an acting student in New York in the ‘50s. That led to roles on Gunsmoke and The Jim Bowie Series, comedy skits on such variety programs as The Jack Paar Show, and years later, TV-movies and appearances on Little House on the Prairie and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. “I was always an actor,: she says in the kitchen of her home near Nashville. “Uncle A.P. was the one who encouraged me. We would play shows in the coal-mining district in West Virginia, and he would say, ‘We could use a little comedy.’”
“Uncle A.P.” was A.P. Carter, the patriarch of the Carter family, Aunt Sara Carter, A.P.’s wife, was the lead singer. Carter Cash’s mother, Maybelle Carter, playes lead guitar and sang harmony. The trio was discovered in 1927 in the mountains of southwest Virginia. Its repertoire is the backbone of American’s folk-song heritage. Linda Ronstadt’s “I Never Will Marry,” Elvis Presley’s “Are You Lonesome Tonight: and Roy Acuff’s “Wabash Cannonball” are all original Carter family songs. Folk singer Woody Guthrie borrowed the melody for “This Land Is Your Land” from a Carter song, “When the World’s on Fire.” “You are my Sunshine” is also based on a Carter family melody, one called “Keep on the SunnySide.”
The original trio broke up in 1943, and mom Maybelle formed a new group with June, older daughter Helen and younger daughter Anita. The act arrived at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry in 1950. At the time, Carter Cash was on the charts with a Top 10 hit, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” “The Opry was a magic place that was my home,” she recalls. “I couldn’t do any wrong there.” A then-unknown Johnny Cash watched Carter Cash from the audience one night and vowed, “I’m going to marry that girl someday.”
But that wouldn’t happen for almost 20 years. In 1952, Carter Cash married singer Carl Smith and three years later gave birth to a daughter, Carlene Carter, now also a popular country singer. When the marriage dissolved, Carter Cash went on tour with Presley. “I kind of ran away,” she says. “I was handled by Col. Tom Parker. Working with Elvis was something for me to hide behind. Elvis has a big crush on (her younger sister) Anita, but then he got a crush on me. Elvis got a crush on whoever was handy. I decided I wouldn’t touch him with a 10-foot pole. Lord only knows where he’d been. I think that was a big shock to his ego.”
During this time, Carter Cash who had another daughter, Rosie, in 1958 with then-husband Rip, made her way to New York for acting lessons. Among her classmates: Joel Grey, Julie Newmar and Jack Lord. James Dean was on the scene, too. “James Dean gave me a rose, and that’s all I’ve ever had to say about it,” she says coyly. “Everybody was a little foolish in New York.”
She returned to Nashville and joined the Johnny Cash road show in 1961. They wed in 1968. “She’s not only a lady that I’ve shared my life with,”says her famous husband, “she is the person responsible for me still being alive. She came alone at a time in my life when I was going to self-destruct.” She got him off amphetamines and encouraged his spiritual development. “Tall Lover Man'' addresses their relationship on her new CD. She also sings his hit “Ring of Fire,” which she wrote when she was falling in love with him.
“Jack Lord asked me to come do Hawaii Five-O, but by then I was just too busy being Mrs. Johnny Cash, I guess,” Carter Cash says. “I worked with John, but I had enough sense to walk just a little ways behind him. I could have made more records, but I wanted to have a marriage.”
The past year and a half has been difficult for Carter Cash, who lost Helen in 1998 and Anita last July. Now she’s helping her husband battle Shy-Drager syndrome, a degenerative neurological disease. “Being bonded as we are, I don’t know what it will do to me, losing Anita right this quickly after Helen,” she says softly. Now it is up to June Carter Cash to carry on with her family’s distinguished legacy.
“I don’t’ feel 70,” she says. “It never dawned on me until I saw it in the paper the other day. I said, ‘Oh, Lord, how did that happen?’”