June Carter died last Thursday, and it’s a great loss. I don’t expect that Johnny will last the rest of a year without her. June’s death also severs the last direct link to the original Carter Family, the group that basically invented recorded country music. A.P. Carter was a fiddler and traveling salesman with a fondness for the songs of the Appalachian hills; he met and married Sara Dougherty when she was 17, supposedly as she was sitting outside her family’s house singing "Engine 143". Sara’s cousin Maybelle (who married A.P.’s brother Ezra) joined them as a guitarist, and the Carter Family — after proving its commercial viability with a few singles recorded in Bristol, Tennessee — was born. The family was wildly successful before the Depression hit and sent A.P. wandering (collecting songs and looking for work). They recorded for the radio, including for Mexican pirate station XET, but the rest of the family largely stayed in Maces Spring, Virginia. Sara and A.P.’s marriage fell apart, but Maybelle — whose method of picking on her extravagently expensive $125 Gibson L-5 guitar came to be known as "Carter style" and was the standard bluegrass sound for twenty years — had decided that she liked show business, and with her daughters, June, Helen and Anita, began recording as Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters. So when June met a young man in black named Johnny Cash in 1956, she was already country music royalty. She had studied acting with Lee Strasburg and was making appearances on "Gunsmoke"; a few years later, she’d make a movie with Zsa Zsa Gabor. But Johnny told her he’d marry her someday, and she fell hard. In her liner notes to her last album, she wrote:
My friend Merle Kilgore, who is a songwriter and manager of my god-son Hank Williams, Jr. always encouraged me to write songs. It was because of his encouragement that I found the inspiration to write ‘Ring of Fire’. It was about Johnny Cash. I felt like I had fallen into a pit of fire and I was literally burning alive.
It must have been hard for her; Johnny was a wild man, a force of nature. He spent evenings in jail. He drank too much and did too much speed. He had a drunken revelation that "Ring of Fire" needed "Mexican horns", and demanded she let him record a version that he arranged; his liner notes discuss a night that he and Carl Perkins broke into her room and tore it apart, jumping on the bed and hollering until she gave in to their demands that she drink a bottle of whisky with them. He got banned from the Grand Ol’ Opry, where June’s family had once been a fixture, for brawling backstage. June set out to change him, and, amazingly, it seems to have worked for both of them. She seemed sad in some ways, having largely abandoned her career in favor of being a helpmeet for Cash (notwithstanding the huge hit "Jackson", which she wrote and shared a Grammy for), but her "recipe for a happy life" noted that "I always listen to my husband and try to do the things he wants me to do."
The three volumes of Cash’s recent box set are entitled "Love", "God", and "Murder". His relationship to God and his faith has always struck me as enormously complex. June Carter seems like a much more simple and fundamentally good woman. It must have been terrifying for her to go down, down, down as the flames went higher. But it’s a better love story for that. They loved each other and stayed married thirty-five years, their continuing infatuation with each other evident even as Johnny’s career waned and his health (and voice) started to leave him. June outlived her sisters and was herself in failing health. I’m sure she didn’t think that she left anything unfinished, except perhaps taking care of Johnny. As June’s uncle wrote,
The day will soon be over
And digging will be done
No more gems be gathered
So let us all press on
June Carter Cash, R.I.P. You had a good life.