On May 15, at the age of 73, a living country-music legend died from complications following heart surgery at Nashville’s Baptist Hospital, with her husband of 35 years at her side.  Her life is a testament to the cultural heritage of the rural South, and the news of her death seems all the more bitter when we ponder the fate of those traditions. 

Those who think of June Carter merely as the wife of Johnny Cash betray their ignorance of the once original and lovely genre that has now degenerated into such spectacles as Garth Brooks smashing guitars on stage and Toby Keith bashing the Dixie Chicks over the honor of President George W. Bush.

June Carter was born two years after her mother, Maybelle, and her aunt and uncle, Sara and A.P. Carter, gave birth to country music.  In 1927, Victor Records’ Ralph Peer toured the rural South in an effort to find representatives of “old-time” music to record.  Among others, he found the blue yodeler, Jimmie Rodgers, and the Carter Family of the Clinch Mountains of Virginia.  Like a Negro bluesman, Rodgers, accompanying himself on the guitar, sang of poverty, heartache, and toil; the Carters, on the other hand, carried on the Appalachian traditions of Celtic folk song mixed with shape-note Gospel music, which placed great emphasis on the blessed hope of Heaven that awaits believers in Jesus immediately after death.  This music reflected the suffering and faith of the people of the rural South, where, after a brutal week of work in the fields, families and friends gathered on Saturday night to fiddle and dance and, on Sunday morning, to worship the Lord.  Those connected both to each other and to the land knew the importance of the family circle and the blood of Jesus.  To them, the Carters sang, “Will the circle be unbroken / By and by, Lord, by and by? / There’s a better home awaitin’ / In the sky, Lord, in the sky.”

No matter how hard the dominant culture tried to reconstruct the South, folks like the Carters hung on to their traditions, preserved in song.  June grew up on the back of her Uncle A.P.’s truck, traveling to barn dances and radio shows where she and her sisters, Anita and Helen, learned from Mother Maybelle how to ease the burden of working people with humor, harmony, and memories, through such songs as “Wildwood Flower,” “Worried Man Blues,” and “Keep on the Sunny Side.”

In 1942, Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters picked up the mantle of the Original Carter Family, and June sang with them into her 20’s, when director Elia Kazan, enraptured by her simple but sophisticated humor, told her that she should be an actor.  June studied acting in New York with Lee Strasberg before returning to Tennessee in the 50’s to sing backup for Elvis Presley with her family (turning down a Woody Allen variety show).  The King introduced her to fellow Sun recording artist John R. Cash, whom the wiley Sam Phillips had renamed Johnny.

John had grown up among sharecroppers at the Dyess Colony in northeast Arkansas (as did my grandfather), where he listened to Carter Family records and longed to play his mother’s guitar.  (Far from Garth Brooks, John’s mother scraped together payments for a flattop that the family treasured until the Depression took it away.)  In 1950, he had heard June and her family on the Grand Ole Opry; by 1961, June had joined The Johnny Cash Show, singing and telling stories.  She also began to fall in love with him, though she knew that it was wrong: He was on the verge of divorce because of his addiction to prescription drugs.  Frustrated, she turned to an old book of Elizabethan poetry that Uncle A.P. had given her, on which she found the words “Love is a ring of fire” underlined.  She wrote: “Love is a burning thing / and it makes a fiery ring. / Bound by wild desire, / I fell into a ring of fire.”

Johnny Cash recorded “Ring of Fire,” one of his greatest hits, in 1963.  Five years later, they married.  June never shrank from saying that John was the love of her life, and, after they wed, she devoted herself to marriage and family, leaving behind her aspirations for stardom.  John credits her love and perseverance with helping him kick his drug problem (apparently more than once).  Though she was a member of the first family of country music, June preferred to live in John’s shadow and sing, for the most part, with and for her family.  She wrote songs for John (“Jackson”) and played small roles in film and television (most notably, Robert Duvall’s mother in The Apostle).  In 1999, she recorded an acoustic album, Press On, which won her a Grammy.

In a memoir, as she reflected on that “Ring of Fire” that brought her and John together, Mrs. Cash confessed: “Christ died for people like me.   People who mess up their lives and stand shaking in their boots with guilt, wondering if they’re really going straight to hell.  But he tells us to repent . . . That’s what I did.”

At her funeral, her “stepdaughter” (June never called her that) Roseanne said in a eulogy: “Recently, a friend was talking to her about the historical significance of the Carter Family, and her remarkable place in the lexicon of American music.  He asked her what she thought her legacy would be.  She said softly, ‘Oh, I was just a mother.’”  May the circle be unbroken.