June Carter Cash presses on – May 1999
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June Carter Cash presses on  Print

By Robert Wooldridge, May 1999

As a member of the most influential family in country music history and wife of one of the century's most admired singer-songwriters, June Carter Cash has been witness to or participated in some of country's finest moments.

With the release of her latest album and first in about 25 years, "Press On," Cash reclaims a part of her family's musical legacy and shows she has been more than just an observer.

Though the original Carter Family recordings, featuring Cash's Mother Maybelle, Uncle A.P. and Aunt Sara, continue to attract new listeners, Cash says her family was largely unaware of the impact they were having. "I don't think they realized it at all," Cash says. "I know they didn't."

"They were so into their families. They loved music. They loved to 'make music'- that's what they called it," Cash recalls. "It was just at a time when people were down and out from the Depression, and it was hard to have entertainment. So,if you couldn't get to town, you could order the Carter Family records from Montgomery Ward or Sears and Roebuck."

It was only later that even Cash realized how influential her family had been.

After she married Johnny Cash and began to tour the world, it seemed audiences everywhere knew the old songs. "I could sing songs like 'Wabash Cannonball' or 'Will the Circle Be Unbroken' or 'Wildwood Flower,'" says Cash. "It was a shock to me that they knew the songs better than I did."

Though she began performing with her family at 9, Cash didn't start to write songs herself until she was about 18. She was working at the time with her mother and sisters at a radio station in Knoxville, Tenn.

"We had hired Chet Atkins to work with us. We had a contract with RCA Victor, and Chet had a single contract just as a guitar player."

Cash and sisters Helen and Anita wrote "A Kneeling Drunkard's Plea" (later recorded by Johnny Cash on 1996's "Unchained") and recorded it with Atkins.

"And the Louvin Brothers got a hold of our record, and they also recorded it,says Cash. "It got them their first contract."

Cash continued to write with her sisters, but it was when she hooked up with Merle Kilgore that she scored her biggest hit as a writer. "Helen and I had a couple of number one country songs that we had written for someone else," Cash remembers. Her collaboration with Kilgore marked the first time she had written with someone outside her family.

"I got this idea and wrote this song, and Kilgore and I kind of finished it and honed it and put the last little pieces on it, and that was 'Ring of Fire.'"

"Ring of Fire" would become one of Johnny Cash's biggest hits. Johnny and June continued to work together in concert throughout the sixties and were married in 1968.

Aside from a solo album on Columbia in the early seventies, Cash has not recorded an album of her own until "Press On."

"Well, listen. You marry Johnny Cash and it'll take you a while to decide what you're going to do next," Cash jokes in reference to the gap of time between solo efforts.

"I've been on tour with John for all these years," says Cash. "I just worked along with him and didn't really think about stopping and recording again. He was always busy thinking about recording, but I was busy helping him get his songs together. I think I put him as my first priority."

Her marriage also kept June busy at home. "I had two daughters (one being Carlene Carter) when I married him, and he had four daughters, says Cash, who previously was married to singer Carl Smith. "That gave me six that first day we were married."

Though she already had six children to care for, Cash says she "prayed reallyhard that God would send us a child. And we didn't have a boy, so I guess I was praying for a boy." Those prayers were answered when John Carter Cash was born.

"He's very talented himself," Cash speaks proudly of her son. "He writes a lot, and he's been working on the road with us all his life." And it was her son John Carter that she chose to produce her new album.

When Johnny Cash was diagnosed with Shy-Dragers Syndrome in 1997 he was forced to put a halt to his touring and recording schedule. While June tended to her husband during his recovery, she also found that she had time to think about doing another solo album.

Actually Cash says that for some time she had been encouraged by her "ex-sons-in-law"- Rodney Crowell and Marty Stuart - to record again. "I said, 'Who's going to help me do this?' They both kept saying 'We will.'"

She held them to their promise on "Press On."

Another ex-son-in-law, Nick Lowe, had wanted to participate, but was tied up doing an album of his own. Cash says she maintains a close relationship with all her ex-sons-in-law. "They all left, but they didn't really leave the family."

Also appearing prominently on the album is daughter Rosie on harmony vocals and guitarist Norman Blake. "He was in a band I had years and years ago," Cash says of Blake. "I brought him to Nashville, and when John and I had our first show on ABC we put Norman on that show. So everybody that's working on this with me came because they loved me."

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