A Mind That Suits What doesn't kill me, makes me laugh... usually.

Wednesday, May 21, 2003 :::
Welcome, once again, Carnival of The Vanities readers. I wish that my piece were a happier one, but I feel honored by and very grateful to Susanna at Bias blog. Those of you who ever saw Johnny and June Carter Cash together will understand, and those who haven't may get some idea of what a loss it is.

For regular readers, I will be posting from California, but perhaps not on a daily basis. Check in when you can.

We Lose A Great One, and The World is a Sadder Place.

This morning brings the sad news of the unexpected passing of June Carter Cash, wife, of course, to Johnny Cash, and the most talented heir to the Carter Family musical tradition.

When I say "unexpected," I mean before the announcements started coming last week about complications following heart surgery.They reassure you that heart surgery is now routine, but as Dana Carvey can tell you, this is not true.

I mean, before that, the family must have know she was ailing, and we did not. That seems only natural, because in person she was gracious and unassuming, despite having once been one of the most popular singers in the United States. More than that, her husband's famed addictions and consequent health problems have been, as is everything about him, much larger than life and drew attention away from her heart troubles. That was probably the way she wanted it.

She was certainly loyal to him, the Man in Black, and the ride cannot have been easy. She had her own career when they got married, but Johnny and June were a combination that Americans simply fell in love with. In the late 1960's, and in the early 1970's, there was no one bigger in country music. They once drew 200,000 people or more to a free concert at the end of an Evangelical youth gathering in 1972.

But if there was anyone with whom you had to take the rough with the smooth, it is certainly John R. Cash. His recurrent problems with addiction to various things, and an erratic musical output, led their career together to sink down until they were almost forgotten. It's not like she didn't know what she was getting: he had already been temporarily banned from the Grand Ol' Opry for kicking out the stage lights at the Ryman Auditorium. Indeed, she wrote the lines, "I fell into a Burning Ring of Fire. I went down, down, down, and the flames went higher," exactly about falling in love with him, five years before they married. But she proved more than equal to the task. He wrote the line, "You make it very, very easy to be true...Because your mine, I walk the line" before they met, but he told her he knew they would marry the first time he saw her on-stage. He credits her determination with saving him from his ampthetimine addiction.

Their talent took them to the very top, but they didn't stay there. That's typical of musical stars, but in this case it was a great loss for us. Country music probably would not have zigged and zagged so close to irrelevance over the last 25 years if Johnny and June had been the anchor on the traditional end of things.

She was quite accepting and clear-headed about the reality of life. You can say, "She had to be," but most of us are not, and she was. The first time I saw them together live, in the early 1990's, they were at the bottom of their popularity. In truth, they were playing what was little more than a glorified corner bar. June joked that someone had run into her on the street and called her "Loretta." She corrected the lady, "No, I'm June Cash. I used to be famous, I used to be somebody."

"Used to be." Right then, that was true, in the sense she meant, but, oh, was that a wonderful show.

Not all of it, to be honest. It took Johnny a while to join the rest of us. He didn't look out of it, just not that interested, and neither did the band. June had this "squaw dance" thing she would do, bending over and pulling up one leg when she was about to let loose, and by the time I saw her do it live, she had put on a few pounds. For about half a second, I thought, "oh-oh," but then she delivered that first snarl and I thought, "This is what I came for."

In this, she was like her mother, the great Mother Maybelle Carter. Maybelle played a decisive role in creating the Carter sound in the late 1920's and early 1930's, through her guitar work. She invented something called the "Carter Family Scratch." You'd recognize it if your heard it, and you've heard it in a lot of country songs. When she got too old to play the guitar, she switched to the auto-harp, the last person, perhaps, to be famous for playing it. And then one night she made one mistake during a song on her son-in-law's TV show, and she retired. Carters do not make mistakes on stage.

At this concert, Johnny woke up in time for the small set they did together. "Jackson," "If I Were A Carpenter," a handful of others. That was when she joked about having been famous, and about how age had brought on what "the old folks used to call 'fluid build-up.'" (That's an old euphemism for extra poundage.) And together they joked about their daughters' famous marital problems. ("We've got six daughters and 14 ex-sons-in-law," or something like that--I don't really know the statistics, but I remember the joke.) I have rarely seen an older couple look so completely at ease with each other.

The Carter Family was famous for their religious music as much as anything else, but June never hid the fact that their private lives were a little out there, just like Johnny's. Her aunt and uncle, A.P and Sarah, divorced in the late 1930's or early '40's, though they and Maybelle would sporadically go out on tour after that. They never really caught on again until the folk revival, when they found a career playing college campuses and folk festivals in the 1950's.

But they didn't really get along all that well. No, sir, they didn't get on that well at all. And the tension seems to have affected their children. Certainly, publicly, the two branches of the First Family of Country Music have stayed far apart. In fact, June and her cousin Janette did not perform together until just last year, on Kindred Spirits,the wonderful tribute to Johnny organized by one of those ex-sons-in-law, Marty Stuart. (Give it a listen at the website, or, better yet, buy it.)

She did perform with her own sisters, with Mother Maybelle beginning in 1942, and later also as a separate group, the Carter Sisters. Their own stuff in the 1960's bowed toward the modern, "country-politan" sound which has plagued Nashville since the late 1950's, but with their mother it was stictly the old stuff. At the show I saw, the Carter Sisters were reunited, and they did what they did best, the old stuff.

They also still obviously didn't get along that well. Helen, a spare, upright woman, seemed like a nervous type who was very concerned about the Carter family legacy. In fact, she had a second career giving lectures on college campuses. The results of Anita's fondness for love, fried foods, and other delectables was on, shall we say, ample display, and she had an air of not caring what anyone thought. Gentle, tough June was clearly the glue. Helen, for her part, was a master of the Carter Family Scratch and Anita was quite a singer, and the songs that they had learned literally at their mother's knee never sounded so achingly beautiful. Helen passed away in 1998, Anita in 1999, and now June is gone.

Shortly after that show, of course, many of the most influential members of rock's pantheon, including U2 and Rick Rubin, gave Johnny a leg up, and he went from barely remembered cult figure to dominance once again in a few short years. The voice is failing, but he has done much of his best work in the last decade, culminating in a chilling cover of the Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt," about regrets. The video is a masterpiece, and it features June, who saw him through all his regrets.

She also lived to see him named the "Greatest Man in Country Music" by Country Music Television. That was a few months ago.

We have all marveled at his endurance and his new triumphs, given his health problems. We didn't know about hers.

Johnny's resurgence did bring her back to the limelight, and to the love of the public. She even won a Grammy for her own Rick Rubin-sponsored album, Press On. And it has a song called, "I Used To Be Somebody."

I saw them together three times, and, honestly, June was the better performer at the end of their careers. Johnny has that mythic something, true enough, but June was better overall. After that first show, I could hardly wait to see her. My enthusiasm led, as enthusiasm can, to one mortifying moment. At the Warner Theatre in Washington, she did a brief set, and then she announced that she was leaving after one more song. I clapped, but was too shy to shout "Stay, June," which is what I meant. She hesitated, because it clearly came across that someone was wanted her to go. I was crushed. She was a trooper. There's no question she heard me, but the last song she did was great. I shouted "June, June," as loudly as I could when she left, and when she came back for the end of the show, and so did everyone else. Maybe she got the impression that one person's rudeness had inspired everyone else to show their affection, maybe I inspired her to prove her lone critic wrong by wowing them with the last song, but I felt terrible.

I always meant to write her a note explaining it, but I am truly irresponsible in that way. Another opportunity came my way, and I laid a plan to make amends. I was front and center at DC's legendary 9:30 Club, in its new, less grungy home. I knew that Johnny always gives out harmonicas after singing the "Rock Island Line," and I intended to get one. I got two, because this drunk guy spent the first half of the concert trying to climb over me to get to Johnny, and Johnny took pity on me and gave me both of the ones he uses. (I gave one to my friend behind me, who had been slapped in the face by the drunk guy's long, dirty hair.)

The other moment I had been waiting for came during June's solo set, when she bent over to pick up some flowers someone had laid there. I said, just loud enough for her to hear, "Love you, June. You're the best." I don't know if she actually blushed, but she glanced down, smiled sweetly, and said, "Thank you." A healing word, but oh, how I wish I had sent that note.

The news this morning reminded me that an old acquaintance has just been diagnosed with cancer so advanced that little can be done. She had watched her health and gone in for regular check ups, but this grew fast. We have had our disagreements, in which I have almost always felt wronged, but I have to get her a note in the next week.

I am sure that dear June had worse things happen to her in her professional career, and I am sure that I have wronged other people more seriously and let them pass away without reconciling to them. But it is such a waste to leave things lying like that. Make peace with others while you can, because life is too short.

There is another moment I remember from that last concert at the 9:30 Club. She said she wanted to close with her favorite of their songs together. She and Johnny held hands as they sang about what would happen if one of them went first. "I'll meet you on the far banks of the Jordan. I'll be sitting drawing pictures in the sand." The end of the chorus escaped me until Kathy Cash ended her post to the on-line fan forum: "And when I see you coming, I will rise up with a shout, and come running through the shallow waters...reaching for your hand."

June Carter Cash--Valerie June Carter Cash, as Johnny's website reminds us this morning--lived a very long life, and left us a wonderful legacy of music. She was a loving, gracious person, and I got to sit about 10 feet from the Carter Sisters on their last tour, and I got to tell June I loved her, and how sad the world seems this rainy morning.


from the blog A Mind That Suits (http://amindthatsuits.blogspot.com)

Copyright, 2003, Kenneth A. Killiany, All Rights Reserved.

::: posted by A Mind That Suits at 10:33 AM



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