June Carter Cash made her way from the humble prairies of Maces Spring, Virginia, to the heart of the Appalachian music scene as a prodigious multi-instrumentalist and a soulful balladeer. Then she married Johnny Cash, and, for many, her rise reached a plateau at that point, whereby she was known as The Man in Black’s wife and not a whole lot more forever after.
She played banjo, guitar, harmonica and autoharp, she acted in several films and television shows to critical acclaim, won five Grammys, wrote several books, performed comedy and endlessly pursued humanitarian work. And perhaps most noteworthy of all, in a retrospective sense, she even co-wrote the song ‘Ring of Fire’ with Merle Kilgore, which would later go on to be a huge hit for her husband and form an essential part of his back catalogue.
In short, she amassed a body of work that could stand up against anybody’s, and while it is inevitable that her legacy would become entwined with her husband’s, it would seem that her legacy has rather been engulfed by her partner in crime as opposed to standing rightfully alongside it.
Naturally, Johnny Cash casts a long shadow, and June Carter was well aware of this. Despite a rocky start where their lives were plagued by addictions, the difficult circumstances of fame and the tempestuous timing that had brought them together, their union was one of matrimony bliss for the most part thereafter. The fact that the marriage lasted from 1968 until June’s sad passing in 2003, and they frequently worked together while raising a child and various others from previous marriages, is a testament to the contentment they found with each other.
By no means is there a hint that June Carter was concerned with nebulous addendum’s to life like legacy or individual dominion, and Johnny likewise was more than happy to share the spotlight. In fact, the pair won two Grammys for their duets on the tracks ‘Jackson’ and ‘If I Were a Carpenter’ respectively. However, it would seem in the years following her passing, the creative partnership that the pair formed throughout their marriage has diminished the output of June Carter as an individual and even if she wouldn’t be concerned with that herself, it should not be forgotten just how much of a profuse talent she was in her own right.
Her final two albums, Press On released in 1999 and the posthumously released Wildwood Flower in 2003, both fetched Grammys and were lauded with critical acclaim from Country circles. But they have since faded somewhat into the obscurity of their marriage as a collective output. In fact, it is hard to find a single review that doesn’t mention Cash in a sense that is limited to the backing vocals he provided. No doubt he was part of the record in a very perfunctory sense, but you’ll find his name cropping up in the assessment of her work a lot more than the other way around.
The call is not to separate the two or to stack one legacy against the other, but rather to simply shine a light on June Carter Cash’s work in her right and laud it with the respect it deserves in an individual sense. She was a celestial talent who relished performing in all its guises while always understanding the importance to use it positively. This is not a case of behind every great man is a great woman, rather a celebration of two great individuals who joyously coexisted.
Their entwinement is inevitable, and that should be celebrated too, for the tale of love against that odds that it represents, but let’s never forget that June Carter was a phenom in every which way both before and during her marriage to Johnny Cash, and she should rightfully be remembered as such afterwards.