Pressing on

Finally, June Carter Cash gets her own record, and maybe some of the credit she's always deserved

June Carter Cash, speaking from her home in Tennessee, says the idea for the album came from Vicky Robinson, a manager best known for discovering Guns N' Roses. Robinson had seen June perform with Johnny at the House of Blues in L.A. while he was promoting American Recordings, and she had become enamored of the idea of making the same kind of record with June.

"She asked Rick Rubin if he wanted to do the record, but he said he was snowed under with projects," June says. More likely, the ultra-shrewd Rubin, who gave us the Beastie Boys and Danzig, was not interested in a record by a 69-year-old woman. Or a 29-year-old one, for that matter. June says Robinson did manage to get her a deal about three years ago, but June didn't have time to make the album.

"I had all the material--well, practically all--for a long time, but I was just too busy," she says. "Sometimes we'd sit around at home and sing some of these songs at family things, and everyone always said I should record them. And I'd say, 'Well, who's going to help me?' And my ex-son-in-law Rodney [Crowell, once married to daughter Rosanne Cash] would say, 'I will, I will.' And my ex-son-in-law Marty [Stuart, former husband of Cindy Cash] would say, 'I will, I will.' I was even going to call the record June Carter Cash and Her Ex-Sons-in-Law."

"When we started, I asked my ex-son-in-law Nick [Lowe, once married to Carlene Carter] to help, but Nick said"--June affects an English accent--"'But I don't want to be your ex-son-in-law...I want to be a son-in-law.'" June finally called in those favors in November of 1998, but only after the album had been delayed by various tragic events.

In addition to her husband's illness (now correctly diagnosed as Shy-Drager's disease, which attacks and sometimes kills the nervous system), June's sister Helen passed away in September, and her other sister, Anita, has long been hospitalized with chronic rheumatoid arthritis. "For the last 20 months, I've just been going from one hospital to another," June says, her voice tinged with sadness.

After Helen died, June and Johnny retired to their home in Jamaica, where Johnny's health greatly improved; indeed, only two weeks ago, he appeared at a concert held in his honor, looking weak but attentive. By Thanksgiving of last year, she finally got into the right frame of mind to record.

June herself is in good health, but like many people surrounded by disease, she can barely keep herself off the topic of her husband's illness throughout our hourlong chat. References to symptoms, drugs, and various doctor-related mishaps pepper her conversation; indeed, it's strangely difficult to get her to alight on the subject of her own music. She's one of those unselfish women whose habit is to put her husband and children (Carter has seven) first--to such an extent that it's almost impossible to find out anything about her own new record, although she finally does say, "it's a cross-section of who I am."

Like American Recordings, Press On is a very basic album, recorded with the kind of intimate, lo-fi production values that expose--and celebrate--the vocal quirks of June's flinty, true voice. It's a much less trendy record than American Recordings (which featured contributions from Waits and Leonard Cohen), and the songs range from Carter Family classics and June's own version of "Ring of Fire" to straight-ahead religious songs such as "Wings of Angels" (about her sister's death) and "The Far Sides of the Banks of Jordan" (a duet with Johnny).

But as authentic and enjoyable as these songs are for fans of country and folk, the real gems are the self-penned numbers such as "I Used to Be Somebody," in which she recalls walking from Harlem to Greenwich Village while talking about fame to James Dean, and "Tiffany Anastasia Lowe," a song about her aspiring-actress granddaughter. June tells her, "Tiffany, girl, go find an earthquake, go jump into a crack / Just don't let Quentin Tarantino find out where you're at / 'cause Quentin Tarantino makes the strangest movies that I've ever seen...Quentin Tarantino makes his women wild and mean." (OK, so it's a little trendy.)

The only covers on Press On are extremely orthodox folk songs; unlike Johnny, she's not remaking Soundgarden's "Rusty Cage" or Beck's "Rowboat." When asked if she considered putting any contemporary artists' songs on her record, June says she considered it...then passed.

"I might have" done it once, she says. "I've certainly progressed to the point where I love some contemporary things now, but this is the bunch of songs I did first, and it's just the type of thing I do. I am a Carter Family girl, so the record is book-ended with Carter Family songs ['Diamonds in the Rough' and 'Will the Circle Be Unbroken']. But inside that book, it's my life--all the places where I'm hurting or I laughed or I cried or I prayed. And I've had to pray a lot this year!"

June Carter Cash is nothing if not a bit corny, but hers is hardly an anesthetizing syrupiness. At 69 (she will celebrate her 70th birthday next month), she can mention Christianity without sounding saccharine or pious; the woman's forgotten a lifetime worth of legend. "Sometimes I like to go to a higher spiritual place," she says, unself-consciously, and in many ways she does seem as though she lives on a different plane than the rest of us human beings. It's a place where American values are also virtues, and some of the more difficult roles of womanhood, such as being a wife and mother, suddenly shimmer with romance and charm.

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