The first time I saw June Carter Cash, I was about the same age as she was when she initially started singing with the Carter Family on rural radio stations. The occasion was a big tent show in podunk Wisconsin which I’d been dragged to by my elders (who insisted we were about to see a very important country music star). The “star” was, of course, Johnny Cash, not June Carter Cash, and the illness that plagued him through the ‘90s made for a rocky set. It wasn’t until June Carter Cash finally appeared that I was able to see the magic that had sparked the enthusiastic fandom of my otherwise subdued relatives. In fact, I don’t remember much about that night except the moment when the humble matriarch took the stage, seized an autoharp, and belted out some rollicking Appalachian tune. Her presence that night was exactly like the “ring of fire” that inspired her friend Bob Johnson to pen the poem which later became June Carter’s declaration of love for her future husband, Johnny. The audience was drawn to the light that seemed to radiate from her gentle smile and fervent voice, even as she stood in the shadow of the Man in Black.
I recount this story not because it was an extraordinary personal experience, but because it was, I think, exemplary of the kind of person and performer June Carter Cash always was. Whether it was a border-town radio station, the Grand Ole Opry, a stage in New York City, or a tent in the middle of nowhere, she embodied an authentic spirit and powerful femininity that not only endeared her to audiences, but also kept her on the sidelines. Recording only three solo albums during her lifetime (the last released posthumously and recorded shortly before her death) her place in the annals of country and western music has, until now, never been duly recognized. Keep on the Sunny Side—June Carter Cash: Her Life in Music has attempted, though perhaps woefully too little and too late, to honor her legacy with a collection of music spanning her earliest recordings with the Carter Family in the 1930s up to her last recordings in 2003. The two-disc compilation includes liner notes by award winning music scholar Holly George-Warren which describe the origins of each track in detail while tracing the path of Cash’s life — winding through multiple husbands, various careers as a writer, actor, and musician, while maintaining her commitment to family and her rural identity.
The compilation is artfully arranged around “Keep on the Sunny Side”, a classic song which her son and producer John Carter has called “the motto of her life.” The title track opens the album, featuring a very young June Carter singing the vocals on the song characteristically penned by her own kin, Uncle A. P. Carter. On these early recordings we see her roots in both a rural Appalachian culture that not only values family, but a familial aesthetic revolving around gospel sing-alongs and the organic timbres of pick-up instruments like autoharp, banjo, and upright bass. These also showcase her unique vaudeville performance style as well as her artistic creativity, which launched her family to greater success in larger venues like the famous Grand Ole Opry. Her creation of the backwater Appalachian character “Aunt Polly” and the flirtatious yet gullible “Little Junie Carter” would foreshadow her later work in theatre with legends Elia Kazan, Sandy Meisner, and Lee Strasberg, but more importantly revealed a kind of proto-feminist struggle with her feminine identity. After her first marriage to country heart-throb Carl Smith, her songwriting takes on a more mature dimension. Songs like “Strange Woman”, a twangy slow ballad lamenting the hardships endured by a woman not content to settle for traditional femininity and marriage, and “Tall Loverman” a high-stepping bluesy song that recounts the tale of a woman who murders her lover out of jealousy over his wife, and subsequently commits suicide, all revolve around themes of discontent that forces women to choose between their passions and the love and security of a husband and family.
Despite the fact that Johnny Cash was an unknown high school hick when June Carter was raving up the Grand Ole Opry, it was their incendiary love affair that inspired Carter to write some of the best songs of her career. Her re-emergence onto the music scene as Mrs. Johnny Cash (as well as her growing maturity as a performer) are showcased in another version of “Keep on the Sunny Side”, this time featuring a more sophisticated June Carter and the somewhat subdued vocals of Johnny Cash, as one can only imagine his thorny growl lassoed tightly to June’s bootstraps. One of the best tracks on the album’s second half is “Jackson,” an up tempo hootenanny with the perfect combination of June Carter Cash’s attention to gritty melodies that swing and Johnny Cash’s fiery guitar picking style. “Song to John” is a previously unreleased track whose simple poetry and graceful harmonies underscore the deep sense of love and devotion the couple must have shared. The album also features several tracks from her first solo album which reveal her commitment to authentic personal expression and the craft of songwriting, and also her reverence for family roots with the inclusion of various covers of her most treasured Carter Family songs. The album concludes with yet another version of “Keep on the Sunny Side”, this time recorded shortly before her death on the Carter Family homestead, and featuring the vocals of her friends and children.
Perhaps the life of June Carter Cash will always rest in the shadow of her husband, who passed away a mere four months after she did in 2003, though one gets the impression from the many collaborations found on this compilation (and from her selflessness in support of her famous husband and children) that perhaps her intention was never to be the “star”, but to be the woman standing at the center of an unbroken circle of family, creativity, integrity, and love. By merely listening to her 1999 recording of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”, one cannot help but feel moved to faith that this legacy will find its expression in the next generation of musicians.