June Carter Cash

Country singer who was wife and muse to Johnny Cash
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The Independent Online

Valerie June Carter, singer, autoharpist, guitarist and songwriter: born Maces Springs, Virginia 23 June 1929; married 1952 Carl Smith (one daughter; marriage dissolved), 1958 Rip Nix (one daughter; marriage dissolved), 1968 Johnny Cash (one son); died Nashville, Tennessee 15 May 2003.

The career of June Carter Cash was inevitably linked with that of her husband, the legendary country singer Johnny Cash. Credited with saving him from the amphetamine addiction from which he suffered throughout much of the 1960s, she became both his collaborator and muse. "What June did for me was post signs along the way, lift me when I was weak, encourage me when I was discouraged, and love me when I was alone and felt unlovable," he said.

Valerie June Carter was born, the second of three daughters, to Ezra and Maybelle Carter in Maces Springs, Virginia, in 1929. Two years earlier Maybelle, her cousin Sara and Sara's husband A.P. had participated in pioneering recording sessions at Bristol, Tennessee, that would usher in the modern era of country music and confirm the Carter Family as seminal figures in its development.

June Carter's mother taught her to play both the autoharp and the guitar and in 1938 she made her radio début, appearing alongside her sisters, Helen and Anita. They became a fixture on Border Radio when the entire Carter clan settled in Texas.

In 1948, following June's graduation from high school, Maybelle and Ezra Carter moved the family to Knoxville, Tennessee, where they performed on WNOX's popular Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round. They followed this with a stint on Springfield, Missouri's Ozark Jubilee and in 1949 recorded several sides for RCA. In the same year June Carter cut a version of "Baby, It's Cold Outside" with the hillbilly comedy duo Homer and Jethro. Featuring a young Chet Atkins on guitar and her sister Anita on bass, it became a big country hit and led to several offbeat solo sides including "Root Hog or Die" and "Mommie's Real Peculiar".

In 1950 Maybelle and the Carter Sisters joined Nashville's Grand Ole Opry; there June's relationship with a rising star, Carl Smith, blossomed and in 1952 they married. The country star Hank Snow introduced the group to "Colonel" Tom Parker and he became their manager, eventually booking them on tours with a young Elvis Presley. However, their appearances together became less frequent as the decade progressed.

June Carter tried her hand at acting, landing television roles in Gunsmoke and Jim Bowie, before returning to Nashville. Having divorced Carl Smith– their daughter, Rebecca Carlene, would, as Carlene Carter, enjoy a substantial solo career of her own – she married for a second time, to Rip Nix, and was by 1961 touring with Johnny Cash.

In 1963 he recorded "Ring of Fire", a song she had co-written with Merle Kilgore. Inspired by a book of Elizabethan poetry owned by A.P. Carter and written in just 15 minutes, the song was originally recorded by Anita Carter as "Love's Ring of Fire". Cash covered the song, making prominent use of Tex-Mex trumpets, and had a landmark hit.

Johnny and June's duet, "It Ain't Me Babe" (1964) became both a country and pop hit and was followed by collaborations that included their Grammy-winning recordings of "Jackson" (1967) and "If I Were a Carpenter" (1970). They married in 1968, and over the ensuing decades maintained a hectic schedule of tours and recording sessions. June's début solo album, Appalachian Pride, was released in 1975.

In 1997, however, Johnny was diagnosed with a neurological condition. June responded to this crisis by stepping out from his shadow and once again pursuing her interest in acting. In 1999 she belatedly released a second solo album, Press On, which tapped into the same raw sound world that had made Johnny Cash's American Recordings a critical success in 1994, and it earned her a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album.

Her priority, throughout, nevertheless remained her husband. "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," she said.

Paul Wadey