When a person thinks of Reno, Nevada, one imagines cheap buffets and sleazy betting joints and petty crime and hotel fires. Or perhaps thoughts turn instead to a man named Johnny Cash, who, according to "Folsom Prison Blues," once shot a man in Reno just to watch him die. Reno is the kind of dingy, down-at-the-heels place where that kind of melodramatic action doesn't sound far-fetched.
But in autumn, when the air turns ice-cold, the neon-lined main street of "the biggest little town in the world" can also exude a bright, sad beauty, and it still seems like the best place on earth to see Johnny Cash perform. That's why, in November 1997, I made the trek to a casino called John Ascuaga's Nugget to see him. It was a pilgrimage, of sorts. A few days after his concert, Cash retired from show business, having been diagnosed (and, as it turned out, misdiagnosed) with Parkinson's disease, making that one of his last full-length performances. How fitting.
John Ascuaga's Nugget--they don't call it just The Nugget, since that name belongs to a 35-year-old weenie joint downtown--is a giant casino with seven horrid restaurants and a giant gnome carved into its front façade. The venue in which Cash performed, the misnamed "Rose Ballroom," was nothing but a large square room full of folding chairs and bleachers, with most of the seats occupied by patrons of John Ascuaga and his Nugget. Scattered among them were a few young alternakids and men in long black dusters, but most were older types, middle-aged couples in spangles and cowboy boots--me and Ma and Pa Kettle.
It was kind of like jury duty or traffic school, but despite the dissimilarities in our socio-demographic makeup, when Cash began to sing--and he opened with "Folsom Prison Blues," just to get the Reno line over with--we all rose up as one, cheering in our sincere admiration. His songs embody all the aspects of American culture that seem so pathetic when distilled into crowds milling about the casinos, but that, when made into art, become a more beautiful statement of human suffering and endeavor. That night, the 65-year-old Cash only sang about eight songs--among them "(Ghost) Riders in the Sky," "Sunday Morning Coming Down," "Ring of Fire," and "I Walk the Line"--before ceding the stage to his wife, June Carter Cash, their son John Carter Cash, and his stepdaughter Rosie Carter.
He performed a handful of duets with June, "If I Were a Carpenter" and "Jackson"; they also graced us with a sing-along rendition of "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," a song written by June's uncle--a fact most in the audience were certainly unaware of. That's a pity, because the truth is, both that song and June Carter are even more a crucial part of the development and preservation of American vernacular music than even Johnny Cash--by a long shot.
In the 1920s and '30s, June's mother, Maybelle, along with her Aunt Sara and Uncle Alvin Pleasant (better known only as A.P.), brought Appalachian folk music to the masses, recording first for Victor and later for immensely popular radio shows broadcast on sweeping 50,000-watt stations such as XERA in Del Rio, which could be heard all over the nation. After the Carter Family broke up, June and her sisters Helen and Anita accompanied their mother on tour as "Maybelle Carter and the Carter Sisters," as well as promoting products on the radio, singing, telling jokes, and appearing on small-town stages everywhere.
June Carter Cash has been a part of Johnny's show since 1961 and is responsible for co-writing some of her husband's best-known hits, including "Ring of Fire," among the more than 70 songs she has written or co-written in her career. On top of that, she's always a warm and funny presence on stage with him; if her husband's an icon, she makes everything around her seem a bit more real, more human.
Yet June actually seemed to be feeling a bit slighted at the Nugget. She made a few gentle jokes about being mistaken for Loretta Lynn by hotel patrons, and though she laughed about it, there was a sense that June Carter Cash would like, at long last, to be considered a somebody in her own right. She even sang one new song that admitted as much, "I Used to Be Somebody," and one can hardly fail to see her point. Whether she's considered a crucial member of a legendary family or an honorable songwriter, nobody deserves fame more.
That night, June Carter Cash talked about the forthcoming release of a solo album (her second, following 1975's Johnny Cash-produced Appalachian Pride), which was slated to follow in the wake of Johnny's crossover success with the Rick Rubin-produced American Recordings in 1994 and Unchained in '96. Both were sparse, rumbling, ferocious discs released on Rubin's American Recordings label that introduced John to an audience raised on Beck, Tom Waits, Nick Lowe, and Soundgarden--all of whom had their songs recorded by Cash. But it's been 18 months since that show, and June's album, Press On, has only just been released on Risk Records, a tiny label based out of Los Angeles.
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.
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.
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"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.