1956 was a good year for Johnny Cash. The singer had just celebrated a chart success with his iconic single, ‘I Walk The Line’ and now he was being invited to one of the most romanticised events in America, The Grand Ole Opry.
The Nashville establishment is one of the most legendary country experiences in the world and with its barn dance atmosphere, it felt the perfect place for Johnny Cash. The singer had expertly walked the tightrope between country and commercial success of late and his debut at the show meant yet another step toward stardom.
In true Johnny Cash style, the singer does things a little differently. While he and Tennessee Two were surrounded by one of the most elaborate stages you’re ever likely to see, we’re talking a complete saloon setting including actors huddled, playing cards, they made sure to stand out—all in the soon-to-be-iconic black suits. Carl Smith introduced the band and Cash and the band kick into a stunning three-song set.
As the pageantry of the Grand Ole Pry, complete with brightly coloured cowboy hats and other showbiz western fodder, fell on deaf ears around Cash, he and the rest of the band were carving out their own niche. It was most notable on this performance of ‘So Doggone Lonesome’ which sees the band cut through the theatrical atmosphere with some serious musical chops.
But backstage is where it all got interesting for Cash. Making his debut on The Grand Ole Opry would have to be a secondary memory, as this was the day he met his future wife and love of his life, June Carter. At the time, Carter was married to Carl Smith and performing herself on the show. In fact, Cash met Carter while she tuned her guitar ready to go on stage. But she had to make time for Johnny Cash.
Ever since her tour with Elvis Presley, Carter had been hoping to meet Johnny Cash. The King was, after all, a huge fan of The Man in Black playing his single ‘Cry! Cry! Cry!’ across many a jukebox in the south. Cash too was a fan of Carter, having grown up listening to Mother Maybelle & the Carter Sisters (which included a young June) on the radio.
On a Saturday night in 1956, the two future lovers would meet for the first time and share this timeless exchange. Cash saying, “I’ve always wanted to meet you,” with Carter replying, “I feel like I know you already.”
“I can’t remember anything else we talked about, except his eyes,” June Carter later wrote in the liner of Cash’s 2000 box set, Love, God, Murder. “Those black eyes that shone like agates… He had a command of his performance that I had never before. Just a guitar and a bass and a gentle kind of presence that made not only me, but whole audiences become his followers.”
Cash said later that he knew the instant he met Carter that he would one day marry her, “Backstage at the Grand Ole Opry, I got on my knees and told her that I was going to marry her some day. We were both married to someone else at the time. ‘Ring Of Fire’—June and Merle Kilgore wrote that song for me-that’s the way our love affair was. We fell madly in love and we worked together all the time, toured together all the time, and when the tour was over we both had to go home to other people. It hurt.”
Carter divorced Carl Smith later that year and soon joined Johnny Cash on the road. The duo shared wonderful performances on stage, with ‘Jackson’ now feeling as akin to a love song as Cash ever truly gets close to. The couple eventually married in 1968 and stayed happily married until their deaths in the early 2000’s.
One thing kept Johnny Cash alive during those hazy days, those days where he was out of his mind on drugs, or violently threatening himself and everyone around him—June Carter.
We’ll leave you with Johnny Cash’s summation of their relationship, and with it, the hope that true love exists after all, “There’s unconditional love there. You hear that phrase a lot but it’s real with me and her [June Carter]. She loves me in spite of everything, in spite of myself. She has saved my life more than once. She’s always been there with her love, and it has certainly made me forget the pain for a long time, many times. When it gets dark and everybody’s gone home and the lights are turned off, it’s just me and her.”
For now, watch Johnny Cash singing ‘So Doggone Lonesome’ moments before he meets the love of his life, June Carter.