“I desire for her to be recognized as an individual artist”: what was the true identity of June Carter Cash?

Estimated read time 10 min read


Patsy Cline is best known for singing “Crazy,” although it was written by Willie Nelson. Similarly, Whitney Houston’s famous rendition of “I Will Always Love You” was originally written by Dolly Parton. Johnny Cash’s 1963 album, Ring of Fire: The Best of Johnny Cash, popularized the love song “Ring of Fire,” which has a strong theme of both love and hellish punishment.

However, the author of this piece is actually June Carter Cash, a multi-talented individual who was primarily known as a singer, songwriter, musician, actor and author. Kristen Vaurio, aged 46 and the director of the documentary “June”, expresses her sympathy for June and brings attention to her role as a lesser-known but significant figure in the music industry.

Many individuals may doubt that she wrote this, but I believe it’s the most well-known country song worldwide. It was a tough sell in Nashville due to her gender, as people were hesitant to give her credit for it.

Vaurio’s documentary includes never-before-seen footage and discussions with relatives and acquaintances, as well as notable figures such as Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Kacey Musgraves, and Reese Witherspoon (who earned an Oscar for her portrayal of Carter Cash in the 2005 film Walk the Line). It presents a new perspective on the impact of a woman who received less acknowledgement for her groundbreaking contributions compared to Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette, and has yet to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

In 1929, June Carter was born in Maces Spring, Virginia. By the time she was 10 years old, she was already performing on stage. Her mother, Maybelle Carter, had a musical group with her cousin Sara Carter and Sara’s husband, AP Carter. Together, they were responsible for some of the earliest country music recordings.

From Los Angeles, Vaurio shares that the woman came from Poor Valley near Clinch Mountain’s base, specifically from Maces Spring. This location held significant spiritual meaning to her and served as her home. Despite spending much of her life traveling, she found solace in this place and the songs she sang, particularly those from the Carter family.

After the breakup of their family band, June, Helen, and Anita continued performing as Mother Maybelle & the Carter Sisters. June played the autoharp and sang comedic songs with a exaggerated country accent and a big smile. In 1939, the sisters had their own radio show on XERA in Del Rio, Texas, which gained popularity throughout the United States and Canada. They later became regular performers on the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville.

Vaurio adds: “She comes from a family of exceptional women, a legacy that continues to this day. I doubt there are any other women like them – brilliant, successful in business – and they achieved it all despite the challenges they faced.”

In June’s attempt to pursue a career as a solo artist, she faced societal attitudes that labeled women in traveling shows as “girl singers.” Vaurio explains that there was also resistance to signing women to recording contracts, as it was believed they would not be successful in sales. June had to overcome this challenge.

Each individual exists within their own unique time and location. In this case, the woman in question was living in Nashville during the 1950s, striving to achieve success on her own. While she may not have identified as a feminist, her actions and beliefs aligned with the principles of feminism.

June and country crooner Carl Smith were the talk of the town as the “it” couple at the Grand Ole Opry. However, their relationship came to an end after just four years, causing quite a stir at the time. In the documentary, their daughter Carlene Carter remembers Smith’s later claim that June never truly loved him, but rather the image he represented.

During a Zoom interview from Nashville, Carlene, an executive producer of the recently released documentary, shares that due to her young age at the time of their separation, she has limited recollections of her parents spending time together in the same room. She clarifies that this does not mean they disliked each other.

“My mother carried a lot of pain for many years, but she never spoke ill of my father. They had a strong bond and worked well together. However, they wanted different things in life. My father believed that being a country musician allowed him to live as a cowboy, something my mother did not desire.”

In the 1950s, The Carters went on tour with Elvis Presley. As a young adult, Carlene, who is now 68 years old, would often inquire about her mother’s relationship with Elvis. However, June would become embarrassed, laugh, and deny any involvement with him. She would simply say that Elvis was a kind and talented young man who struggled with the typical pressures of being a superstar.

“They were very close friends. He would often visit our house when I was a child, wanting a sandwich. Sometimes, only the nanny and I would be home, fast asleep while Elvis made himself a sandwich downstairs – most likely peanut butter and bacon.”

In the late 1950s, June relocated to New York in order to pursue acting, at the recommendation of director Elia Kazan. Kazan had witnessed her talent while searching for filming spots in Tennessee. June wed Edwin “Rip” Nix, a retired football player and law enforcement officer, in 1957. They welcomed a daughter named Rosie Nix Adams, but ultimately divorced in 1966.

In 1961, the Carters joined Johnny Cash on tour. While Helen and Anita took a break to focus on raising their families, June continued to perform. As Cash struggled with drug addiction and public outbursts, June took action by searching for and disposing of his pills. She also encouraged him to seek counseling and asked her daughters to pray for him.

Cash wrote in his autobiography about June’s unwavering support during his struggle with substance abuse. He explained that she saw beyond his addiction and negative behaviors to the true essence of who he was. She believed she could help him and would often search for and dispose of his pills, determined to help him overcome his addiction.

June wrote “Ring of Fire,” a song about falling for Cash despite his destructive tendencies. Carlene was present during its writing process and remembers June playing it on the autoharp before trying it on guitar.

The woman took detailed notes about various things and eventually hosted a party with some friends. During the party, famous musician Merle Kilgore was present and had been motivating her with a song. She played it for him and he offered further encouragement. However, she was the one who wrote it. I remember excitedly running through the house to tell all of my mom’s friends, “My mom wrote a new song!” At the time, we were unaware that it would become a hit. We simply believed it had potential.

In 1963, Cash released a song that was credited to June and Kilgore, which reached the top spot on the US country chart. Carlene, who is also a country singer and songwriter, states that some people may underestimate June’s abilities because she is a woman. However, the success of Mae Boren Axton’s song “Heartbreak Hotel” proves otherwise. The Carters, including Maybelle and Sara, were also influential in the music industry due to their songwriting skills.

My mother’s main advice to me was that there are no set rules. A good piece of advice will be recognizable when you receive it. She chuckled as she mentioned her own simple song, “Ring of Fire,” written for Johnny Cash. I’m sure she said it with a hint of sarcasm.

“She was very serious when she spoke, looking me directly in the eye as she shared her thoughts. I took her words to heart. She was my biggest supporter, always accompanying me and sharing my accomplishments with others. She took pride in her children and our ability to continue the musical tradition in our own unique ways.”

In 1961, June declined an opportunity to join a variety show and instead chose to go on tour with Cash for a weekly salary of $500. After both going through divorces in 1966, they tied the knot two years later when Cash proposed to her on stage in London, Ontario, Canada. They welcomed their son, John Carter Cash, in 1970.

Carlene shares that John had a strong admiration for June, considering her his favorite thing in the world. Whenever she entered a room, he would become animated. He expressed his longing for her and would even ask about her whereabouts. When Carlene mentioned they were out shopping, he eagerly anticipated June’s return.

“It was very sweet and they were very much in love and my sister and I got to see what that looked like, for my mom to actually be in love with somebody that adored her and that she adored, and they had great mutual respect for each other. Everybody knows it was not easy all the time – definitely not – but for us girls, and for my little brother when he came along, we saw it on a daily basis between them. There were a few hiccups but that’s normal.”

Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash on the stage at Wembley in 1979

In the past, June and Cash collaborated on both recordings and live performances, featuring popular songs such as Jackson and If I Were a Carpenter. These songs earned them Grammy awards in 1967 and 1970. They also sang duets such as It Ain’t Me Babe in 1964 and If I Had a Hammer in 1972. As time passed, they frequently joined evangelist Billy Graham on stage. Unfortunately, Cash’s struggles with addiction resurfaced, causing strain on their marriage until he sought treatment.

June had a few acting gigs, one of which was playing Robert Duvall’s mother in the movie The Apostle in 1997. In 1999, she put out an acoustic album called Press On, her first in 25 years, which traced her career from the start and her 31-year partnership with Cash. The making of Press On is featured in the Paramount+ documentary.

Carlene remembers that June struggled with the fact that she had never taken a break from being a performer. Despite this, she was able to make a comeback, release a record, perform live, and receive recognition and two Grammys in her 70s, serving as a source of hope for women everywhere. Carlene expresses her pride in June’s accomplishments.

After June passed away in 2003 due to heart surgery complications at 73, with Cash by her side, various news sources like the Associated Press, Guardian, and New York Times all focused on her well-known husband in their initial coverage. However, Vaurio’s film aims to challenge this dominant narrative.

She expresses a desire for June Carter Cash to be recognized as her own artist rather than just being referred to as Johnny’s wife. Her determination to make a name for herself is inspirational and serves as a valuable lesson for anyone.

Carlene expresses her desire for the documentary to showcase her mother’s incredible qualities, both good and bad. She believes that every aspect of her mother is fascinating and there is never a dull moment.

  • The month of June is currently accessible on Paramount+.

Source: theguardian.com

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