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She attributes such characteristics to her mother, Mother Maybelle Carter, who died in 1978, and whom she still misses desperately. "My mother," June says fondly, "just loved performing--and it must have been crazy for her. Do you know, she made every stitch we girls wore on stage, and without a pattern? She'd just look at us and cut out the size. And she did all the driving! We always had Packards--until the war, when they stopped making them--then we had a Cadillac. We never actually slept in the Packard, but we'd stay at these places called 'tourist homes.' Then they got these wonderful things called 'motels.'"
That was in the 1940s--the "last of the vaudeville days," as June refers to it, when the Carters would perform at theaters between westerns and Three Stooges shorts. They'd do five shows a day, beginning at noon and ending at 7 each night. June was in her teens then, a schoolgirl and superstar all at once.
As such, she explains, "I'd fall asleep in class a lot. Then they'd call on me, and I'd jump right up and answer. I must have been pretty smart, because I graduated when I was 15." June went to school in Richmond, Virginia, near a famous ROTC Academy.
"There was a group of highly sophisticated kids in our town, who thought they were, you know, Merriweather Lewis," she recalls. "They were the kind of people who rode with the hunt club and grew up thinking it was OK to have slaves. But even though we were like the hillbillies, I was always comfortable with everyone in my school. I got to be a sponsor"--something like a homecoming queen--"one year, and got to go to the cadet hops, even. My mother used to let me miss a show if there was a dance I wanted to go to. But I used to play these old country characters on the radio, and people could come down and watch us record, and I remember sometimes I would just hope no one from school would come and see those shows!"
In those days, June was more of a comedian than a singer. As such, in 1955 she moved to New York City to study acting; that's where she met and became friends with James Dean. She did quite a bit of television in those days--for a time, she was a regular on Gunsmoke--but would commute back to Nashville to appear on the Grand Ol' Opry with Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, and others. Yet June insists she always felt like the least talented member of her family; still does, in fact, even with two Grammy Awards to her credit.
"You know, you cannot grow up playing with Mother Maybelle Carter on one side of you and Chet Atkins [the Carter Family guitarist] on the other, and think you're the most successful musician in the world," she exclaims. "They just had way more on the ball than I did. My mother was the most wonderful musician in the world! She could just pick up anything--guitar, banjo, accordion, violin--and play it, and everything she played had what I call 'The Carter Scratch' to it, a way of playing it that sounded like a whole orchestra was playing along.
"Then, my sister Anita has the most beautiful voice in the whole world, and Helen was very talented; she could read anything by sight. I could read a little music, and I could play 'The William Tell Overture' on the piano, but something inside me made me want to yell 'Hi ho, Silver!' in the middle a lot more."
Between touring with her family, and, later, touring with her husband, June has spent an inordinate amount of her life on the road--but always, somehow, in a position that could be termed second fiddle. She sounds surprised, however, when it's suggested she deserved a more prominent role.
"That doesn't worry me," she says, quite practically. "[Johnny]'s had a lot more hit records than I have, and you become that way [famous] from recording. I've only gotten my fan base from people seeing me, from 35 years on the road. Anyway, 'I Used to Be Somebody' started out as a joke...I was never looking back in regret. I never thought, 'Oh, why didn't I become an actress?' or 'Why did I just go paddling along after John?' I've always walked along right by his side, and he's always supported everything I do. He's just like my father that way. My father just adored my mother and let her do whatever she wanted. John's like that. He's a very rare man, a very good man, and I've had a good life with him.
"This new album, I just can't believe it. I always feel like, 'Why are all these people calling to talk to me?' I'm very happy about it--very happy--but I've always just felt very proud to be walking in the wake of Johnny's fame."
And Johnny, apparently, likes to walk in her wake as well. Asked if she's planning on touring, June says, like Ruth in the Bible before her, "If we go back on the road, we will go together. I'll go where he goes, and he'll go where I go."
It's a lovely prospect.