[5 June 2007]
To describe the late June Carter Cash as remarkable, admired, rare, and legendary would accurately express the responses she evoked both from the public and from those who knew her well. Yet to simply heap superlatives and ignore the multiple dimensions to a life which inspired such words would do a disservice to such an endearing woman’s memory. When one considers that June Carter Cash was a member of the preeminent family in American roots music, on her own merits a talented singer-songwriter who penned one of country music’s most enduring hits (“Ring of Fire”) and, perhaps what she will be longest remembered for, served as the muse and deliverer for one of the most charismatic performers in the history of both country and rock music, such words suddenly seem less encompassing than they once did.
Since Carter Cash’s death in May 2003 from complications following heart valve replacement surgery and husband Johnny Cash’s subsequent passing nearly four months later, which many attributed to his heartbreak over her loss, a great outpouring of emotion and energy has been spent in tribute to the couple’s body of work and to the obvious depth and strength of their love for each other. The 2005 film Walk the Line was a massive box office hit and garnered a significant amount of critical praise and recognition, culminating at the Academy Awards with Reese Witherspoon’s Best Actress trophy for her portrayal of Carter Cash. Perhaps one of the film’s greatest achievements was how it took the curious interest of a younger generation in the couple’s lives, built by Johnny Cash through his American Recordings work, and expanded it to full-blown fascination.
Instrumental in sustaining and increasing interest in the remembrance of his parents, John Carter Cash was as an executive producer on Walk the Line and is behind two new works of tribute to his mother. He has penned the book, Anchored in Love: An Intimate Portrait of June Carter Cash and serves as producer for this collection of 12 musical tributes, many of which were recorded on family land at Cash Cabin Studio in Hendersonville, Tennessee. John’s involvement as well as the contributions of many friends and relatives give a tender, familial touch to Anchored in Love, which separates the record from typical tribute albums.
In his autobiography Cash, Johnny Cash, speaking of his wife’s musical talents and achievements, lamented, “Sadly, I think her contribution to country music will probably go under recognized simply because she’s my wife; it certainly has been up to now. That’s regrettable—my only regret, in fact, about marrying her”. The interpretations featured on Anchored in Love span the whole of June Carter Cash’s career and remind listeners that her contributions to the country music canon were as noteworthy as her husband suggested. The album features six tracks she either wrote or co-wrote, as well as songs she, as the album’s press material says, “perpetuated or made famous”, including those she performed with Johnny, her family, or as a solo artist. Perhaps in keeping with Carter Cash’s steadfast, yet free-spirited, personality or perhaps by coincidence, the album is graced by performances that are faithful to the root and spirit of her musical style while breathing in just enough new life to keep any version from seeming like a retread.
The album begins with fresh adaptations of two of Johnny and June’s signature duets, underscoring the importance of their artistic collaboration on both their professional and personal lives. Willie Nelson and Sheryl Crow open with an earthy take on “If I Were a Carpenter” followed by Carlene Carter (Carter Cash’s daughter) and Ronnie Dunn (Brooks & Dunn)‘s rollicking “Jackson” which, though employing a more modern Nashville sound, was certainly recorded in the spirit of the original. Carlene especially seems to channel the sassy, soulful essence of her mother’s performance. The record features two other notable pairings: “Far Side Banks of Jordan”, a lovely Kris Kristofferson/Patty Loveless duet, and “Road to Kaintuck”, which, though it features perhaps the album’s most surprising coupling, juxtaposing Billy Bob Thornton’s matter of fact monologue and the Peasall Sisters’ angelic harmonies, is one of the album’s more enjoyable and memorable cuts.
The quality of female vocalists present on Anchored in Love not only speaks volumes about the respect June Carter Cash received from other highly venerated artists (Loretta Lynn and Emmylou Harris turn in staggeringly beautiful performances on “Wildwood Flower” and “Song to John”, respectively) but also is proof of her influence on a younger generation of singers. The range between Grey DeLisle’s ethereal, breathtaking “Big Yellow Peaches” and stepdaughter Roseanne Cash’s spiritual, more traditional ballad “Wings of Angels” gives evidence of the diverse set of artists Carter Cash’s music touched.
And what of June Carter Cash’s most famous composition, “Ring of Fire”? The song receives gentle treatment from Elvis Costello; gone are the mariachi horns and shuffling guitar rhythms of Johnny Cash’s renowned recording, replaced instead by the organic sounds of mandolin, harmonium, accordion, and Carter Cash’s beloved autoharp in an effort, as John Carter Cash notes, to “focus more on my mother’s version of the song than my father’s version”. In fact, the presence of the autoharp on “Ring of Fire” and several other tracks is another sign of the thought and care with which the recording of these songs was undertaken. Foregoing any temptation to record showier or more personally glorifying versions of these songs, the artists involved seem to have made a deliberate effort to understate their own importance so that the grace inherent in Carter Cash’s songs might be seen. The album also includes fine performances by Ralph Stanley, Brad Paisley, and Billy Joe Shaver; there is not a weakly crafted offering to be found on the album, making Anchored in Love a consistently outstanding and certainly appropriate tribute record that, hopefully, will only broaden and increase the already tremendous impact of the Cash family.