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Family affairs
June Carter steps out from behind the complete Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash was a whole new breed of cat when he stormed onto the American music scene 50 years ago.

Rock and roll was under way and country music had been recorded for a little more than 20 years, but on June 21, 1955, Cash stomped a line right across both styles with "Cry, Cry, Cry" backed by "Hey Porter" on Sam Phillips’s Sun Records. His muted rhythm guitar thrummed with rock’s drive and energy, and he was buoyed by the insistent low-end, almost polka-like figures of guitarist Luther Perkins and upright-bassist Marshall Grant. Together they had so much beat they didn’t need a drummer. And when Cash opened his mouth, his warm baritone told the kind of stories that country music had been built on — tales of longing and retribution and home and life in the rural outposts and city streets of the South.

Because much of the repertoire he developed drew on gospel, folk music, and the romance of America’s past, Cash became the dean of country music. But he always had that rocker’s streak, covering songs by Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson, Arlo Guthrie, the Band, and even, shortly before his death in September 2003, Trent Reznor.

Not so June Carter Cash, his second wife and soul mate. June Carter was pure country, born in the hills of Virginia and into the bosom of one of the style’s founding clans, the Carter Family. From her earliest recordings, radio transcripts capturing 10-year-old June singing numbers like the Carters’ "Keep on the Sunny Side" and Stephen Foster’s "Oh Susannah," to her final tapings, she never lost the grounded, faith-fueled perspective and twangy cotton-candy drawl that were her birthright.

New anthologies re-examining the musical legacies of Johnny and June Carter Cash have just been released on Columbia/Legacy. The standard edition of Johnny Cash: The Legend comprises four CDs spanning his half-century career. The deluxe edition, a pricy lure for hardcore fans, includes a large photo book, a lithograph of a painting of Cash, a DVD of the 1980 TV special Johnny Cash: The First 25 Years, and a bonus CD of his first live appearance, on Memphis radio station KWEM in 1954. For completists or those who want a crash course in Cash, it’s a great package. But the seven unreleased songs, which include "I’ve Been Workin’ on the Railroad" and "Down in the Valley," don’t add much to his canon — though there is an entertaining duet with Billy Joe Shaver, "You Can’t Beat Jesus Christ," on the fourth disc, which collects Cash’s musical collaborations.

Cash’s finest duets, including "Jackson" and Kris Kristofferson’s "If I Were a Carpenter," were with June. And they’re all on June Carter Cash — Keep on the Sunny Side: Her Life in Music. But what’s best about this two-CD set is that it helps bring her out from Johnny’s imposing shadow. That’s where she chose to be for the last four decades of her life, often holding the man she loved together when his battles with drugs and inner demons threatened to tear him to pieces. As a result, she didn’t record much. She cut singles with her sisters and her mother, the guitarist, singer, and Carter Family bedrock Maybelle Carter, and others, like the Grand Ol’ Opry comedy team Homer & Jethro, and she had a handful of sides under her own name. She finally made her own solo album, Appalachian Pride (Columbia), in 1975, then waited 24 years to make its follow-up, Press On (Small Hairy Dog). Her final full-length, Wildwood Flower (Dualtone), came out shortly after her death in May 2003, a few months before Johnny slipped away.

Keep on the Sunny Side starts with that precocious 10-year-old singing her little heart out. A few tracks later and June has grown into her role in the Carter act as the family comedian. Her best available cornpone humor can be found on June Carter: Live Recordings from the Louisiana Hayride (Scena), an excellent collection of early radio performances that culminates with her singing "It Ain’t Me, Babe" and "Ballad of a Teenage Queen" with Johnny. But on Keep on the Sunny Side, both her early single "Root, Hog or Die," cut with her sisters (Helen and Anita) and Maybelle, and a yokel rewrite of "Baby, It’s Cold Outside" that was a hit she made with Homer & Jethro in 1949 suffice.

The tunes vary in quality — though June calls on the rarely heard darker side of her clear mountain voice for the 1961 murder ballad "The Heel," and there’s a sparkling "Ring of Fire" recorded with Helen, Anita, and Maybelle — until her duets with Johnny begin in ’67, with "Jackson." From there on, the set hits a series of musical and emotional highs. All of the Johnny Cash–produced Appalachian Pride gets aired, and Tom T. Hall’s "The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore," "East Virginia Blues," "I Love You Sweetheart," and the title number all sound like entries from June’s coming-of-age diary. They also tell the story of America’s industrial rise and the first measures of its decline, of how the hills in which she was raised resonate with as many stories as the cities, and how the foundation of love and tradition and faith on which she was raised shaped her outlook on life.

The set also taps June’s final albums, concluding as it begins, with "Keep on the Sunny Side," but this time sung in the frail, lovely voice of the 74-year-old who made Press On. June had a bright personality, even when she had to use every bit of her strength to keep Johnny’s dark side from devouring him. But she also drew strength from her bond with her husband. You can hear how that bond held by comparing the spirited 1976 version of their duet "Far Banks of Jordan," on Keep on the Sunny Side, with the weathered reading on Press On, when those banks were no longer far. It’s the sound of two people facing the inevitable together, worn by time but staying, as best they could, on the sunny side of life’s final avenue.

Issue Date: August 12 - 18, 2005
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