In addition to exposing more people to Johnny Cash’s music (always a good thing), the recent success of the film Walk the Line also shed light on the contributions of June Carter Cash. A member of the famed Carter family, she also co-wrote “Ring of Fire” with Merle Kilgore. Johnny Cash, of course, took the song to #1, and married Carter years later. That marriage would last the rest of their lives, and right up until the end, Cash was quick to credit his wife with helping him to clean up his act. When Carter Cash died in 2003, he passed away only months later.
Carter Cash didn’t record much on her own—her first solo record was in 1999—and it’s difficult to find a definitive record of her work. From the looks of things, she recorded only one full album with Johnny Cash, 1967’s Carryin’ On. The two sang together quite a bit over their careers, even if little of it was recorded, and it’s hard to believe, in light of their place in country music history, that examinations of their work together have been rare commodities. 16 Biggest Hits won’t wow you with its packaging—in fact, it looks like reissue of an old budget title—but it fills a huge gap on the country music shelves.
It also seems to trace the pair’s evolution from passionate youngsters to a comfortable old couple. The first four songs—all from Carryin’ On are full of fire. “Jackson” might be the most well-known song, and deservedly so. Johnny and June’s chemistry is electric, and her robust growl gets put to good use. “Long-Legged Guitar Pickin’ Man” is equally saucy, while the spry “Oh, What a Good Thing We Had” looks back on a “good thing gone bad”, and segues nicely into a spirited “Darlin’ Companion” from At San Quentin.
After that, things calm down a bit. “If I Were a Carpenter”, “‘Cause I Love You”, “The Loving Gift”, and others are songs of gratitude and devotion, sung from the perspective of people with years under their belts. A few of them up the syrup quotient to dangerous levels as it is, but product-of-the-‘70s arrangements push a few over the edge. “The Pine Tree”, though, makes nifty use of tree and plant imagery to explore the singers’ personalities (with harsh jealousy rearing its head). “Brand New Dance”, from 1983, is a tale of romantic rebirth with a subdued arrangement that resembles some of Cash’s later American work. After the Carryin’ On tracks, 16 Biggest Hits varies in quality; there are some classics here, but there are also a few cuts tht don’t quite measure up.
The set also features a nice bit of bookending. “It Ain’t Me, Babe” (from Carryin’ On) opens the disc with Johnny promising June that he’s only going to let her down, that he’s more trouble than he’s worth. At disc’s end, “It Takes One to Know Me” finds Johnny admitting that his wild days were probably more than one woman should have to bear, and that June was more than he deserved. It’s a nice touch.
16 Biggest Hits doesn’t strive to be comprehensive, but that’s OK. It does a really good job of hitting the highlights from a duo who didn’t record nearly as much material together as they should have.
Johnny and June Carter Cash - Jackson