Right off the bat, you need Keep on the Sunny Side: June Carter Cash, Her Life in Music and Press On. If you have any interest in country music, the career retrospective and her great mature album are vital documents. Her family (and Jimmie Rodgers) created country music as a commercial recorded medium, and she was a vital artist till her passing in 2003. Indeed, her 1999 recording Press On may well be her very best.
June Carter Cash was a hell of a gal. Between being the daughter of Mother Maybelle and then being married to Johnny Cash, she had a real interesting life experience and knew everybody. She dated James Dean. She studied acting under Lee Strasberg, and did some fine acting. She had the interesting experience and musical tutelage to make some great records.
All this meant that she perhaps didn’t spend as much time in the recording studio as one might have wished. She seemed more oriented to being a wife and mother than being a careerist. Keeping Johnny Cash even halfway in line must have been pretty much a full time job right there. For one thing though, this seems to have resulted in pretty good quality control. She wasn’t just cranking out mediocre crap cause it was time to make a record.
The awesome two disc career retrospective Keep on the Sunny Side: June Carter Cash, Her LIfe in Music includes recordings from 1939 to 2003. It really fascinates me to hear just a short bit of nine year old June singing “Oh, Susannah” on a Mexican border radio station as part of the family act. Listen to this plucky little girl, and think about the lioness she would become.
One aspect of all this that jumps out is her family role. The young daughter was the designated comedienne, representing some of that vaudeville aspect of early country, which just escaped her more serious minded uncle and mother. There’s a strong emphasis on comic material throughout her recorded career.
The comedy schtick tends to inspire some of the best energetic grooves, which works nicely as being a Carter meant she always had the absolute top drawer musicians.
One particular standout in that vein was “Baby It’s Cold Outside.” She performs this with Homer and Jethro, two of the funniest fellows and hottest pickers in country history. Pay attention also to Chet Atkins jazz guitar decorating this arrangement. They get pretty good comic effect just from slightly countryfying it. “That ain’t sasparilla there.”
The whole premise of this recording, though, is that 19 year old June Carter is getting ready to have a three way with Homer and Jethro. I’m not sure what could possibly be funnier than that. Careful repeated listening to this jam will be likely to generate some HIGHLY comic mental pictures.
She worked up an especially fine comic groove in 1954 with Mom and the sisters on “He Went Slippin’ Around.” It starts with the premise that a wife has responded to a husband slipping around by dumping banana peels on their front steps. This image of slipping around on the steps might, however, distract from the darker strain of humor that arises as she just flat kills the guy with a butcher knife. Hardy, har har! I don’t know who this I. Smith is who’s credited with writing this psycho comedy. but I’m definitely scared of them Carter women. They might run a little bit “wild and mean.” But we’ll get back to that.
Of course, June’s work intersects and provides counterpoint to her famously somber husband. She (and Merle Kilgore) wrote Johnny’s best song, “Ring of Fire.” His hit version with those cool horns would probably be considered definitive, but it’s certainly good to have her autoharp dominated rendition for contrast.
Probably the biggest record with her name as performer though was “Jackson.” This comes from the 1967 album Carryin’ On With Johnny Cash & June Carter, which makes this actually the document of their courtship before they were married in 1968. It’s also the classic example of how she would tend to lighten the mood for Johnny.
There were numerous great recordings chronicling their romance, but it strikes me listening to these collections how much ground is represented just with “Jackson” and their duet of “If I Were a Carpenter” from 1969. Throw in “Ring of Fire” and the 1999 recording of “Far Side Banks of Jordan” and you’ve got a pretty good chunk of a legendary romance captured for the ages.
Nearly half of the 1999 Press On album comes from re-recordings of songs from an out of print 1975 album Appalachian Pride. Conveniently and revealingly, the Keep on the Sunny Side collection has the 1975 recordings. Usually one would be skeptical of re-recordings of your old songs. However, they sound really different not just stylistically, but in the underlying emotional communication. Moreover, I’d pick the 1999 recordings clearly over the 1975 versions for nearly ever song.
Most improved award goes to “Losin’ You” which shows the limitations of humor, and where it might sometimes have been something of a limitation. In 1975, she’s still half playing it off for a joke. Note some of the cheesy keyboards. By 1999, she’s got a whole different and more serious reading of the same tune. It’s not somber, really, but something’s heavier and more real.
It seems as if only late in life did she become really comfortable with addressing heavier dramatic states such as the pure tragedy of “Tall Loverman” with no vaudeville punchlines. The Press On recordings uniformly have more emotional throw weight than the earlier recordings.
Naturally, there are several cuts among these albums that go to Carter family mythology, not to put too high-falutin’ a word to it. Of course, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” shows up in multiple recordings. But there are perhaps more interesting songs to that end.
“Ole Slewfoot” (recorded in 1974) rates special attention for folks interested in the whole family mythology. This song about a pig-stealin’ country Bigfoot is best known from Porter Wagoner’s definitive version. This becomes a special family moment though as sung by June, who’s going to shoot Ole Slewfoot full of buckshot. Then, of course, the famous baritone kicks in with “Some folks say he looks a lot like me.” Soon enough, their young daughters are singing “Some folks say he looks a lot like Daddy” Them Carter womenfolk could be a little wild and mean.
Which brings us to the piece de resistance of Press On, a total June original written for her granddaughter “Tiffany Anastasia Lowe.” She wrote and performed an exceptionally good classic Carter family song, primarily accompanied by her autoharp- which really turns out to be mostly about Quentin Tarantino. It’s hard to communicate the freakiness of the effect of the combination of old and new.
Besides being one of her catchiest compositions, this song rates high in the entire Carter family pantheon particularly on grounds of the exceptional emotional nuance. She’s working out a fairly unique, complex emotional statement, nominally warning her granddaughter very strongly off of hanging around this guy who “makes his women wild and mean.” Of course though, it took a woman at least a bit that way to ride herd over ol’ slewfoot Johnny.
Grandma is obviously totally fascinated by Quentin. One might surmise that she was seeing some kind of younger version of her beloved bad boy Johnny. Of all things in his work, June was apparently particularly tickled by Uma Thurman’s famous overdose from Pulp Fiction. There are these different emotional strains of humor, a hint of sexual arousal and grandmotherly concern that come out combined like nothing else. Indeed, this song’s good enough to be a worthy finale as the last original composition on her last album released in her lifetime.
Born June 23, 1929
Married to singer Carl Smith 1952-1956
Their daughter Rebecca Carlene Smith aka Carlene Carter born 1955
Married to policeman Edwin Nix, 1958-? One daughter, Rosey Nix Adams
Married to Johnny Cash March 1, 1968
Their son John Carter Cash born 1970
Passed May 15, 2003