The Sunny Side and More: An Interview With John Carter Cash
John Carter Cash talks to PopMatters about his mother's life and the process of creating the new June Carter Cash tribute album and biography.
There are certain musical families that one instantly thinks of when a simple surname is tossed out, like Wilson, Wainwright, or Williams. That isn't to say that they're all such families start with a "W", but the name evokes images or thoughts. Carter and Cash are two other families that have been a cornerstone of American music the last half-century and before. So when you're John Carter Cash, there's a heritage there that is almost criminally rich and stellar.
Yet above all the accolades, tributes, and love that was (and still is) bestowed upon the late Johnny Cash and the late June Carter Cash, there's one word that the families have cherished more than any other: truth. Rosanne Cash often mentioned the word in an interview as the topic touched upon the tear-inducing, lump-in-your-throat video her late father made for "Hurt". And it's that truth that John Carter Cash has adhered to with two releases, a tribute album entitled Anchored in Love and a biography of the same name, both based on June Carter Cash.
"When I decided to make the record and book, I knew it was going to be hard," John Carter Cash says from his home. "I knew that I would have to tell the truth, which was sort of heavy. But at the same time I knew it was something that I wanted to do. I also believed firmly that I could make the point of it one of retribution and showing family values and to show some of those characteristics of my mother at the very core."
Although both record and book are being released in June, John says that the idea for the album came first. The book project came after Thomas Nelson, the publishers of the biography The Man Called Cash, approached the Cash estate about a book on June.
"They didn't have an author picked out; they were talking to some different people," John says. "In the process they asked me if I would write a forward, so I went ahead and wrote the forward for the book. When they read the forward, they said 'Why don't you just write the book?' I knew it would be hard, but I'm glad I did it in the end."
June Carter Cash, who passed away in 2003 five months prior to Johnny, was part of the Carter Family before meeting up with "The Man in Black". And while a song such as "Ring of Fire" is always associated with Johnny, few might realize it was June Carter Cash who wrote it.
"I think their contribution together was beautiful and it stood alone," John says. "I think she stood behind him, endorsed him and strengthened him throughout his career. I think that her force as a creative person and a songwriter, a performer, a musician, has an enduring beauty and uniqueness onto itself apart from my father."
John Carter Cash
As for the album, Anchored in Love features Willie Nelson, Loretta Lynn, Ralph Stanley, Emmylou Harris, Elvis Costello, Kris Kristofferson, Rosanne Cash, and Sheryl Crow to name a few. Cash says that making the album was nothing but a joy to create, and he sensed the presence of his mother throughout the recordings.
"She's going to be involved in one way or another -- she's right there with me," he says with a laugh. "The fact was I see her light shining in the eyes of some of the folks that were on the project. They had a close, dear relationship with my mother.
"My family was there, my sister Carlene and my sister Rosanne and then there were folks that were influenced by her indirectly, people like Grey De Lisle. The songs were straight out of the heart and the songs felt right. They are songs where only certain people could do them. But these artists went above and beyond."
As for memorable moments, Cash says that having Loretta Lynn in the studio was like having his mother around again.
"She is cut from the same mold as my mother," he says. "They are of the same ilk, they really are. They're so much alike in their character and dedication to their art, their visions."
Meanwhile, Ralph Stanley's rendition of "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" was recorded at the old Carter home in Maces Springs, Virginia, the same home June Carter Cash recorded her final album Wildwood Flower.
"It was an unforgettable experience -- the whole band in the living room, which we had done before," he says. "It was just right to see someone of such stature and dignity performing in the place where my mother did years before as well as her mother (Maybelle)."
And it appears that John Carter Cash's five-year-old daughter Anna Maybelle has her own favorite off the album.
"She has adopted 'Keep on the Sunny Side' as her anthem in her life," Cash says. "I take her to school every morning so I have listened to Brad Paisley's version everyday of my life for the past year. I haven't really gotten tired of it yet so I guess it's great. The song is about my mother and father's love, a song that's very dear and important."
Yet as joyful as the album's process was, some of the previously unknown truths in the book show a different side of June Carter Cash, including an addiction to pain medication in her final years.
"Obviously the end was tough to write about her death," Cash says before pausing briefly. "That was really hard to go back through. But at the same time I think there's something about not being afraid of the truth, it does heal. It's not something I was afraid of, those memories. I think it was a blessing, that fact that I had to go through those memories of pain and what they brought up."
The book is basically split in half, the early part dedicated to June's early years and the second half detailing different sides and aspects of June that her son writes about different memories, be they a simple evening or a period of days.
"I didn't recount her life step-by-step," he says. "I would spend a whole chapter on one night or a week-long period because I felt that explained clearly some of what my mother had gone through in life and who she was, those moments of her life."
The book and album will mark the end of any additional material related to June Carter Cash. John Carter Cash says there's plenty of Johnny Cash material coming out, including American VI which is done and set to be released in October. He also says he's heard rumors of a possible Walk the Line film sequel around June and Johnny's later years, but nothing is confirmed.
So what would June Carter Cash think of all these releases on her life and music?
"I think she would have been overjoyed," John Carter Cash says. "I think everything that has happened since she passed on, she's aware of it. That Reese Witherspoon won an Academy Award portraying her, I'm sure she's somewhere dancing and laughing right now."