Part VIII

“Ring of Fire”'s impact was felt even before it reached #1. And it was monumental. Cash’s tenuous relationship with Columbia was completely transformed. His “last chance” was not merely a hit; it was a grand slam. His influence at the label skyrocketed, and he was pretty much able to write his own ticket. The world would never have heard “Ira Hayes” or “Orange Blossom Special” or even the prison albums the way it did if it had not been for “Ring of Fire.”

June’s fortunes soared as well, and she brought the Family along. As a group, they left Liberty and accepted a recording deal with Columbia, which now wanted everyone and everything associated with “Ring of Fire.” June also signed as a solo artist, recording her first session on June 27 (she did “I Pitched My Tent on the Old Camp Ground”—written by her and her mother—and “Sweeter Than the Flowers” by Ervin Rouse, who also wrote “Orange Blossom Special), even as “ROF” was racing up the charts.

It is said that, while failure is an orphan, success has many fathers. It wasn’t long before a quiet controversy simmered over “ROF’s” authorship. One day while driving through Virginia, June and Cash picked up a WWVA radio show out of Wheeling, WV which was doing an interview with Merle Kilgore, who was telling how “he” wrote the big song. They stopped at the nearest town where John fired off a telegram to the station “clarifying” the matter. It would be a source of hard feelings for years (although success must also have healed some wounds, since June, Cash and Kilgore would collaborate on writing the title song to Cash’s later album “Happiness Is You,” and Kilgore was the best man at their wedding).

Then there was that “other Ring of Fire.” The chorus to Duane Eddy’s instrumental title song from the 1961 movie bore a similarity to Anita’s rendering, although less so to Cash’s. Nevertheless, there was some concern over the perceived similarity, especially after the royalties started rolling in. Eventually, it would be agreed that, while Anita’s “arrangement” was familiar, they were entirely different songs. It did not hurt that Kilgore was an executive at the publisher which happened to own both songs anyway.

June was now linked forever to Johnny Cash. She must have needed a project, because that’s what he was. She was determined to set him straight, to fulfill what she considered his destiny. It would take some time. On June 22, 1963, as his “resurrection record” rocketed northward, Cash turned what should have been a triumph into disaster. The KFOX Country Music Spectacular at Los Angeles’ Hollywood Bowl was familiar territory. Just the year before, the Cash show, including Patsy Cline, had been a big hit. Now, Patsy was gone, but the show was hotter than ever, and the current lineup included Faron Young, Johnny Western, Loretta Lynn, George Jones, the Carters and June. But an emaciated, disoriented Cash walked off the stage after a short, bad set punctuated by missed lyrics and a slurred delivery. June and the rest of the cast stepped up their presence and made it through the show. Their efforts avoided catastrophe, with the fallout being no worse than previous similar meltdowns. But this was the highest profile venue to be burned by the Cash disintegration.

Less than two weeks later, June and the Family went into the studio to record what would become their epic “Keep On the Sunny Side” album of Carter standards. Johnny Cash appeared as a “special Guest,” taking the role A.P. Carter took on those original recordings three decades before. The Cash/Carters professional collaborations were mutually beneficial. None of them had ever been darlings of Nashville (Cash’s “home” was still in California, at least nominally), so each counted on the other. For June and the Carters, Johnny Cash brought them into the mainstream and gave them visibility they never enjoyed before. They, in turn, gave him credibility in the country field, something the rockabilly rebel turned folk singer surely needed during the times of personal and professional turmoil. His relationship with June aside, the Carters provided a living, breathing link to the old days which had so captivated him. For a man without roots, they represented stability. In the maelstrom which was his life, he could find quiet strength in June and her mother. He would need it, even if he had not yet accepted it.

June provided Cash with another special song two days after the Carter Family sessions. She and her friend Jan Howard wrote “Christmas As I Knew It,” which Cash would record several times through the years. June had a knack for getting through to Cash. This song, with its allusions to Cash’s childhood, seemed as if he had written it himself. She could get into his mind, even as he was out of it himself.

By September 1963 June was filling in the blanks. She brought Norman Blake, a former member of her road show (and another fellow veteran of WNOX’s Tennessee Barn Dance) to play dobro for Cash. He would later be a regular on Johnny Cash’s ABC TV series (as would her old mentors, Homer and Jethro). She also decided to be a permanent member of his road show, and discontinued performing regularly with her family, who were not at this point part of the show. The rest of the Carters would, in various combinations and with outside-the-family singers, continue as a separate act, while still appearing on virtually all of Cash'’ recordings. But as Cash'’ erratic behavior continued to alienate people, and his inner circle grew ever-smaller, it was June who kept him going, feeding, sewing, and often fighting him and his demons, all the while raising Carlene, now eight, and Rosie, five.

By the end of 1963, Vivian Cash knew she had lost. Nine years before, she had married an erstwhile appliance salesman she barely knew, anticipating a normal, unspectacular life revolving around family. She did not count on having to battle the entertainment business for her husband’s soul. When that business ate away at him, her wariness turned into loathing, and when she rejected her husband’s calling, he considered her to have rejected him as well. Years before, he had written “I Walk the Line” for her. Now, he had walked away. But Vivian, a devout Catholic raising four girls, the oldest eight years old, as a single mother, would not let him out. She flatly rejected a divorce, leaving Cash fuming. In November, he lashed out in song: “Understand Your Man,” which would go to #1 the next year, was full of fury aimed at Vivian. Message delivered. Message rejected.

June and Johnny Cash were now partners and, finally, singing partners as well. In March 1964 she recorded her first duet with him (“How Did You Get Away From Me”). Most of the old faces had had enough and had quit the touring act, leaving just June and the Tennessee Three together with an ad hoc group of performers including, variously, Tex Ritter and Bill Monroe. (Later that year, Marshall Grant would come across a quartet from Staunton, Virginia once called the Kingsmen. They would join the troupe and provide some stability as the Statler Brothers.) Cash’s traditional folk history led him to that genre’s cousin, the folk movement (which revered Maybelle Carter), and eventually to the social protest folk sweeping the country. He had been an early advocate of Bob Dylan inside Columbia, and that mattered now that he was selling millions of records. He and Dylan conducted a written correspondence, each averring admiration for the other. The result was, even as the new “Ring of Fire” album became the first #1 on Billboard’s Top Country Album chart, Cash was decidedly rejecting country music.

June and Cash became regulars on the Greenwich Village scene, befriending people like Dylan and his girlfriend Joan Baez, American Inidan poet Peter LaFarge, activists Pete Seeger and Phil Ochs, and songwriters like Judy Collins. This was the Un-Nashville. This was June’s milieu; that time she spent in the 50s living in an apartment off Madison Avenue had had a profound effect on her, and she felt at home in New York, although the protest crowd was not her type. The rebellious, carefree attitude played right into Cash’s dark side, however, and his behavior terrified her. But there was no denying the influence on his art. Indeed, it appears that John fashioned his partnership with a semi-enthusiastic June on Dylan and Baez, and on Richard and Mimi Farina (who was Baez’s sister). The Cash/Carter duet “Jackson” was learned in New York from the Kingston Trio, as was “The Reverend Mr. Black” (and the writer of both those songs would also write “Blistered”); their “Pack Up Your Sorrows” was a Farina composition; the later concert favorite “Children Go Where I Send Thee” also came from the Kingston Trio; their Grammy-winning “If I Were a Carpenter” was written by folkie Tim Hardin (as was “The Lady Came From Baltimore”); Cash was singing Leonard Cohen’s “Bird On a [the] Wire” years before he recorded it. “Bitter Tears,” an album of “ballads of the American Indian,” was inspired by Peter LaFarge, who would write most of the songs, including “The Ballad of Ira Hayes.” One of the last things LaFarge did before he committed suicide in October 1964 was to write a hugely laudatory article on Cash for the folk bible “Sing Out.” In July, Cash made a triumphant bow at the Newport Folk Festival, where he wore his outsider status like a badge of honor. He sang some Dylan songs, and recorded the for his “Orange Blossom Special” folk album.

June was torn. She loved Cash, but she paid a high price for it. Many times, she was on the receiving end of his foul moodiness. She missed her family, the family which had nurtured her all her life. Many of her old friends were now keeping their distance, fully expecting Cash to totally destruct, and to take her down with him. Nashville was her home, even if she felt like an outcast. It was also Rip Nix’s. He was still her husband, although their unexpected, ill-fated marriage was long over. She felt the pull every which way. She returned to her family’s act, if only part-time and temporarily, to ensure the legacy was carried on through the absences of Helen and Anita while each was pregnant with their last children. She could not leave the family. She maintained correspondence with Sara Carter, retired out in California. Sara had been through turmoil in her younger days, leaving A.P. and marrying his cousin, then ostracizing herself. Sara understood, but counseled June to follow her heart without losing her head. June would frequently give that advice throughout her life. In 1966 Sara allowed June and Cash to talk her out of retirement to record the “An Historic Reunion” album for Columbia. Cash was slated to participate on the project, but was a no-show when it came time to record. Despite the event of bringing the two aging titans back together, the album was not commercially successful, and yet another year came and went with the Country Music Association rejecting a Hall of Fame nod to the Carters once again.

1965 was an awful year. In January, Cash made a return appearance on the folk television program “Hootenany.” But taping had to be suspended because he was so drunk he could not remember the words to “Amen.” Then, in April, the country establishment continued their snubbing, awarding Grammys to Roger Miller’s inconsequential “Dang Me” over both the epic “Bitter Tears” (album) and “I Walk the Line” (male vocal performance). Then, an enraged and strung-out Cash went on a tirade during a guest appearance on the Opry smashing out the stage footlights with his boot and crashing the mic stand. He was told not to come back. This was the stage where. 15 years before, June had taken her family into the big-time. It was also the same place, eerily familiar, where Hank Williams was sent packing. June was not going to let another giant kill himself.

The last straw occurred in October. After a show in Dallas, Cash failed to show for a flight back to Los Angeles, instead going to Juarez, Mexico. Coming back over the border, he was arrested for concealing 688 Dexadrine and 475 Equinil pills in his guitar case. It is hard to say who was more humiliated—June or Vivian. It was Vivian who traveled to El Paso and was photographed with her husband in handcuffs. June watched from Nashville, contemplating the collapse of her life and the ruin of everything she had given up so much for. She had never quit, never given up, but this was about as bad as it could get. Cash went back to California with Vivian (one can only imagine what THAT was like). June turned back to her family.

At this time June undertook to write a book about her fabled family. To be called “I Remember the Carter family,” there were several installments published in a country magazine before the project was, sadly, abandoned. But she also took the opportunity to address her life. These were her words:

[There were some] very happy years, years of hope, years of frustration, some of unhappiness, of doubt, of contentment, and all kinds of weird mixed up feelings of another soul trying hard to find some suitable place in society. Had I been the smart one, I would have taken advantage of the great wisdom of my Grandmother Carter, or my mother, or my father or someone who has made all the mistakes life has to offer and done the very things they said they said to do. Neither turning to the left or to the right, but forging straight ahead to a contented life. But me…being mortal took every turn that I could find and made all the mistakes over again, and finally reached what I am today, be it bad or good.

And she faced her critics head on:

Who in a lifetime hasn’t been elated to ecstasy and then plunged to the depth of despair…? Elated I’ve been and plunged I’ve been. And I must say I’ve done them well. There have been times that I have probably been the happiest person alive and when I hurt, I hurt harder than anyone I know. Maybe, if you’ve hated me, you’ll reconsider, or if you’ve loved me you’ll know why. There are times I don’t understand myself.

At 36 years of age, June Carter had already lived several lifetimes. She had scaled heights, and been brought down to incredible lows. She was at a crossroad. It would get worse before it got better.
 

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