Silver Medalist: June Carter Cash
Part I: The Early Years
The entire universe is vibration. The entire universe is motion.
Can you feel the vibration? Inside you, outside you, every moment, every day, every where.
The entire universe is laughter.
Humming. Rhyme. Story. Music.
Listening to June Carter Cash sing, you will note her singular voice, distinct from the likes of Dolly or Linda or Wynona or Tammy or Patsy. Contrary to her self-appraisal, she was an excellent singer. But she was rarely the best singer on stage. That honor usually went to her legendary husband, Johnny Cash. But June wasn’t even the best singer in her family band, Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters. That title probably went to her younger sister Anita. And, well, her older sister Helen may have sung with greater skill too.
June did not let her relatively limited singing ability — when compared to the superlative greats — forestall her career. She found ways to contribute to a show’s success. She was a gifted comedienne. She worked hard to learn acting, which paid off on the screen and stage. Interestingly, while June's husband, Johnny Cash, would gather acting roles because of his fame, his performances came across as forced, stilted, and unnatural. Her acting, on the other hand, while not Academy Award-worthy, was accomplished and purposeful.
June Carter Cash cultivated herself into a wonderful entertainer.
She felt happy and content contributing to the greater good. She needed the spotlight, but she honored the need for others to have the spotlight even more. And she didn’t feel threatened by that need.
“Sadly, I think her contribution to country music will probably go unrecognized simply because she’s my wife; it certainly has been up to now. That’s regrettable — my only regret, in fact, about marrying her,” Johnny Cash wrote.1
So what makes June Carter Cash a Silver Medalist? Longevity, for one. Her career began in 1939, at age 10, and ended only a few weeks before her death at 73 – more than six decades of performing and recording.
The first time Johnny ever saw June, she was performing on the stage of the famous Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee — which he was visiting on a high school field trip. Across that long span, she played with nearly every country music star of the 20th century — and many rock & roll icons too. They included Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Waylon Jennings, Bono and U2, Willie Nelson, Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, Hank Williams Jr., Kris Kristofferson, Roy Orbison, and many others — including her own Mother Maybelle, who had been a member of “The First Family of Country Music,“ The Original Carter Family.
Amidst the celebrity, money, properties and travel, June has lessons to teach about ambition, place, faith, success and family. Not all of them are lessons to be admired or imitated.
For decades she courageously confronted her husband’s drug addiction. Then her son’s. Then her daughter’s. Other family members struggled with addiction. So did she.
Through it all, she kept going. She enjoyed her greatest personal success in music in her final years. Her marriage to the man she called John was firmest in those final years, like a meteor flaming brightest before disappearing in the atmosphere.
Today, twenty years after her death, she is largely forgotten. In some ways, Johnny has never been bigger — his legend grew in the decades since his passing. Johnny was a musical genius — a true legend.
June was not.
Part I. The Early Years
To know June Carter, we must know her family and her birthplace. June was born into a musical and innovative family. Her mother Maybelle, cousin Sara and Sara’s husband, A.P. Carter formed the Carter Family, one of the earliest country music radio and recording acts. Sara would earn money singing at nearby events; sometimes Maybelle would join her, playing the guitar in a way called the “Carter Scratch.” The Carter Family became a more formal act during the summer of 1927, when A.P. saw an ad in the newspaper. The Victor Company was bringing a recording device to Bristol, Tennessee, and would pay $50 — a huge sum at that time — for every song it “deemed worthy of recording.”2 Sara, A.P. And Maybelle drove to Bristol for the audition; they headed home $300 richer. “The First Family of Country Music” had its start.
A year earlier, Maybelle had married A.P.’s brother, Ezra “Eck” or “Pop” Carter. Eck was a curious and energetic man. He became an important man — as a railroad postal agent and later the builder of the first dam in the area, bringing electricity into his home and then to the surrounding area. He was a “resourceful, deep-thinking man who loved tinkering and working with his hands. He always saw intriguing possibilities where others saw difficulties. He supported and believed in Maybelle’s music and her amazing ability to play her guitar.”3
In September 1927, only a few months after the first recording of the Carter Family, Maybelle gave birth to their first child, Helen, in Maces Spring, Virginia. June Carter – full name Valerie June Carter was born in June 1929. The youngest Carter sister, Anita, followed in March 1933.
The area where June and her sisters grew up, at the base of Clinch Mountain, was known as Poor Valley, and we don’t need a strong imagination to know why. The Holston River flowed barely a mile away from the Carter home. Rolling hills and taller mountains framed a rugged, picturesque setting for June’s first home. She fell in love with this area. Even when she would leave this place to play and record with her family, even as she became a mainstay of country music, even after she married Johnny and enjoyed lavish homes in Nashville, New York, Florida, Jamaica and other places, this place would remain her center. She would always call it home, think of it as home, and feel it as home in her heart. She would return to it for emotional and spiritual renewal to the end of her days. All her life, the music, laughter, religion and folklore of this place would echo in her soul.
While her mother traveled around with the Carter Family, June spent much of her early years following her father Eck around. “I wanted to be a Daddy’s boy,” she wrote in her first memoir.4 She would ride on Eck’s motorcycle, swim the Holston, worm tobacco, play basketball and milk cows. She was “happiest when she was in mud up to her waist.”5 For the first 9 or 10 years of life, she rarely went beyond the four square miles around her house.
A.P. and Sara Carter divorced in 1936, but the Carter Family kept singing together. They went all around the area, singing at events and performing on radio shows. In the winter of 1938-1939, Maybelle, A.P. And Sara went to Del Rio, Texas to sing on station XERA two times per day for six months. Later in 1939, XERA signed the Carters to a new singing contract — and it included the three Original Carter Family members, and their families, including the kids. Helen, June and Anita moved to San Antonio to sing with their family.
From a young age, Helen and Anita sang beautifully. June sang well, but not with the ease as her sisters. In June’s words, “My two sisters, Helen and Anita, had perfect pitch, but no matter how hard my mother tried or Anita pinched or Helen glared, I’d sing anywhere on the scale that my voice decided to go at that particular time. And it was never where they were.”6
In those days in Texas, the first hints of June’s greatness emerge. She worked hard to improve her singing. She wanted to sing as beautifully as Anita and Helen — and her mother. “When you don’t have much of a voice and harmony is all around you, you reach out and pick something you can use. In my case, it was just plain guts.”7
June also found other ways to entertain an audience. She wrote, “I talked a lot and tried to cover up all the bad notes with laughter.”8 Her son, John Carter Cash, later wrote, “a little light went on in her head as the audience chuckled at her antics. Maybe she wasn’t the family’s most talented musician, but she could be funny, and an audience’s hearty laughter was as welcome to Mom’s ears as applause. She had learned a valuable lesson.”9 In fact, she had learned two lessons.
Lesson: Fit In
June realized from an early age that music ran in her family’s blood, like the Halston so near her family’s home. Despite not being the greatest singer, she embraced her family’s work. She joined her family’s band and became an integral part of their music and identity.
Lesson: Stand Out
That said, June felt an ambition — different from her sisters — to distinguish herself within the Carter Family. She wanted to stand out and sought ways to do so. Her monologues and comedy bits helped her stand out and made a unique contribution within her family. This drive to stand out would show itself again and again. It would push her to improve her singing, her playing the autoharp (her main instrument), her comedy repertoire and later drive her into acting. In her later career, she would have many tools to call upon to captivate an audience, whereas her sisters, her mother and even Johnny would rely on only their singing to engage an audience.
In her first autobiography, Among My Klediments, June related a story that illustrated this point well:
“Oh, I had such great ambition to be a funny girl. When I was ten years old, I met Cousin Minnie Pearl, famous for years as a comedienne at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, and she encouraged me. She said, “Always be yourself. Never try to copy or mimic anyone else. Be an individual.” So I went home to the valley and started to live with my dreams of being a funny girl. The week after I talked with her, Cousin Minnie sent me a letter and a lot of routines she had used on the Grand Ole Opry. That was the most wonderful thing that could happen to a girl who had dreams of being a great entertainer. In the years that followed, I learned Minnie’s routines, and I felt very special because she had taken the time to write me when she was such a big Opry star. But I followed her advice, and I never once used one of those routines. I developed my own.”10
After a couple years in Texas, the Carters returned to Poor Valley. Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters kept playing music throughout the Valley and surrounding area. They became famous enough that they were photographed to grace the cover of the then-renowned Life magazine — scheduled for the first week of December 1941. Of course, the attack on Pearl Harbor dropped their cover moment. But it was a testament to their musical reach and impact that they had been scheduled for the cover in the first place.
In late 1942, the Carters, including A.P. and Sara, moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, to play on radio station WBT. Like before, they played live on the radio every day, and in the evenings played live shows around the area, arranged by Eck. These months in Charlotte proved to be the last hurrah for The Original Carter Family. After the contract expired in the spring of 1943, Sara, Maybelle and A.P. would never play together again.
Maybelle, Helen, June and Anita moved on to Richmond, Virginia, with a new radio contract. In Richmond, June graduated from high school. She wanted to attend college, but the family needed her as a part of the band. “So we had our homemade college — the guitar, the songs, the road work, putting up public address systems….In the traveling we did I learned to sing all the parts, take up tickets at the door, drive all over the USA, and do what was necessary to make a good show….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….My body ached. Then I stopped a show with a routine, and I finally had to face it — I was hooked. There would be no turning back now. I would be an entertainer.”11
In 1950, the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville came calling for Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters. There was no greater stage for a country music musician than the Grand Ole Opry. It’s like being named a don in the mafia, an unmistakable signal that the artist has ascended to country music royalty. Almost every single country music star in the past 75 years has at least played at the Opry. John Carter reflected, “Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters had reached the top of the ladder. They were regulars at the Grand Ole Opry. What a rush that must have been for these plainspoken people from the mountains, what a sense of accomplishment they must have felt.”12
In the whirlwind of stardom, June married another emerging country music star, Carl Smith, in 1952. They had separated even before their daughter, Carlene, was born in 1955. They divorced shortly thereafter. In 1957, she married Rip Nix, a race car driver and former football player. June gave birth to her second daughter, Posey, the following year. June and Rip divorced in 1966.
Following her divorce from Smith, and then many times later in life, she went to New York City to retreat and recover. Her son wrote, “I can’t help but think that first trip to New York forever influenced her life. She saw the fashion, the style, the opportunities, the money, and the education the city offered. When her marriage to Carl Smith ended, she felt New York beckoning her. Come here and recover, the city seemed to say to her. Come here and change. Make a clean break. Begin again.”13
Lesson: Know Your Home
June would always view Maces Spring and New York as her havens, the places she could gather her strength. She returned to one or the other again and again. She viewed them as her true homes, regardless of the amount of time she could spend in them. The author Wendell Berry writes about the necessity of place, of living in a place and knowing it. He writes beautifully about home. The reality of today’s world, with digital nomads, children living far from parents, and diverse family arrangements, makes living in one single place a challenge or impossibility for many people. June offers a useful, practical bridge between Berry’s vision and that reality. Even amidst a nomadic life, she points toward the beauty and usefulness of grounding oneself in a place or two, and gaining emotional sustenance from them. The amount of time spent matters less than the emotional connection.
In New York, June dove into her acting career, taking lessons, seeking out roles and continuing to expand her entertaining talents. She returned to Nashville on the weekends to play at the Opry, then headed back to New York during the week.
By 1961, June had a thriving singing career. She was a country music star and a regular at the Grand Ole Opry. She was growing her skills as an actress. She could enthrall an audience with her comedy. She was one of the great American entertainers of the day.
She was also a mother of two daughters and a wife. While she wasn’t looking to slow down, she wanted a streamlined schedule to have more time in Nashville with her family.
Johnny Cash hired a new manager around then, Saul Holiff. And Saul thought June would make an excellent addition to Johnny’s traveling tour, the Johnny Cash Show. That tour traveled 10 days each month, leaving 20 or 21 days for June to return home to her girls. That appealed to her.
On December 5, 1961, June joined Johnny’s show at the Big D Jamboree in Dallas, Texas, “a date I knew was going to be the start of something big,” Johnny wrote.14
Like music, like the universe, the next forty years would vibrate, rotate, spin around, wave, dive, rise — they would oscillate between fairy tale and nightmare. What could the girl from Poor Valley, tiny Maces Spring, do? She could only press on.
Part 2: June and John … coming soon
Thank you to Foster for the gift of Season 3, which allowed me the time and space to research June’s remarkable life. I am indebted to my Foster colleagues for their time and effort in editing this essay: Lyle McKeany, DJ May, Danver Chandler, Jude Klinger and Shanece Grant. Thank you, thank you!
Cash, John Carter. Anchored in Love. Thomas Nelson, Inc.: Nashville, 2007.
Cash, John R. Cash: The Autobiography. HarperCollins: New York, 1997.
Cash, June Carter. Among My Klediments. Zondervan Publishing House: Grand Rapids, MI. 1979.
Cash, June Carter. From the Heart. St. Martin’s Press: New York, 1987.
Cash, Rosanne. Composed. Penguin Books: New York, 2010.
Hilburn, Robert. Johnny Cash: The Life. Little, Brown and Company: New York, 2013.
Cash, John R. Cash: The Autobiography. HarperCollins: New York, 1997. p. 133.
Cash, John Carter. Anchored in Love. Thomas Nelson, Inc.: Nashville, 2007. p. 11.
Ibid. p. 14.
Cash, June Carter. Among My Klediments. Zondervan Publishing House: Grand Rapids, MI. 1979. p. 19.
Cash, John Carter. p. 17.
Cash, June Carter. p. 28.
Ibid. p. 28.
Ibid. p. 28.
Cash, John Carter. p. 22.
Cash, June Carter. p. 65.
Cash, June Carter. p. 51.
Cash, John Carter. p. 36.
Ibid. p. 42.
Cash, Johnny. p. 157.