Valerie June Carter was born in Maces Spring, in Scott County, on June 23, 1929, the middle of three daughters. Her mother, Maybelle Carter, was a musician. Her father, Ezra J. “Eck” Carter, worked as a mail clerk for a railroad company, earning enough money for his family to pursue music. That, in addition to money made from record sales and radio performances, gave June Carter a relatively comfortable upbringing. Unlike her future husband Johnny Cash, who came from a poor family, she lived in a nine-room house that, as she noted in her memoir Among My Klediments (1979), “hugged the side of Clinch Mountain,” in southwestern Virginia. In her early years, Carter worshipped with Methodists, Baptists, and members of other churches, but at the age of fourteen she was born again, a process by which she became an Evangelical Christian. Carter recalled in her memoir that she “shot up like an arrow, crying, singing, and the fire was all around me.”
Carter’s mother played with the Carter Family, a trio formed in 1927 with her husband’s brother, A. P. Carter, and his wife, Maybelle Carter’s first cousin Sara Carter. That summer the Carter Family recorded for the Victor Talking Machine Company as part of what became known as the, on the Virginia-Tennessee border. By 1930, the group had sold hundreds of thousands of records for Victor and become nationally known.
Late in 1938 the Carters moved to Del Rio, Texas, performing for an ultrahigh-frequency radio station that broadcast from Mexico and could be heard across North America. They continued to play for border radio during winters, moving to San Antonio the next year. It was at this time that June Carter and her sisters, Helen and Anita, along with Janette Carter, the daughter of A. P. and Sara Carter, all joined the group, at least for radio performances. In addition to dancing and singing, June Carter played the autoharp and sometimes told jokes. In the autumn of 1942, the family moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, performing for WBT radio until March 1943, when the Carter Family trio disbanded.
With Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters
Soon after, June Carter, her parents, and her sisters moved to Richmond. There, the quartet of Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters performed first on WRNL and then on WRVA, sometimes accompanied by the Virginia Boys: Maybelle Carter’s brother Doc Addington and her cousin Carl McConnell. In 1946, June Carter graduated from John Marshall High School, in Richmond. The family later moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, and then to Springfield, Missouri, before landing their first gig at the Grand Ole Opry, in Nashville, Tennessee, on May 29, 1950.
By her own admission, June Carter’s singing voice was not as strong as that of her sisters. To compensate, she focused on becoming a physical performer and incorporating humor into the family’s act, singing novelty songs, sometimes portraying a rube-like character called Aunt Polly, and telling jokes that drew on broad caricatures of her rural upbringing. Carter emphasized humor on the first recordings she made outside the context of her family’s ensemble. In the first of three sessions with the country duo Homer and Jethro, in June 1949, she sang “Country Girl” and a satirical version of the popular song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” The latter was so over-the-top its released title included the words “With Apologies to Frank Loesser,” referring to the songwriter; still, the song reached No. 9 on the country chart and No. 22 on the pop chart.
Carter married the country singer Carl Smith on July 9, 1952, and three years later the couple had a daughter, Rebecca Carlene Smith, who later performed under the name Carlene Carter. The couple divorced in December 1956, and, with the encouragement of the director Elia Kazan, Carter moved to New York City with her daughter. While continuing to sing on weekends with her mother and sisters in Nashville, she studied acting with Lee Strasberg. In 1957 Carter appeared in one episode of the television series Gunsmoke and two episodes of The Adventures of Jim Bowie.
On November 11, 1957, Carter married Edwin “Rip” Nix, a Nashville native who had played college football and was an inventor, construction company owner, speed-boat racer, and sheriff’s deputy. The couple’s only child, Rozanna Lea Nix, was born on July 13, 1958.
During the 1950s, June Carter met and performed with many of the most important names in American music, including Hank Williams, Waylon Jennings, and Elvis Presley.introduced her to amphetamines, and Carter battled drug addiction for much of the rest of her adult life. In the meantime, she continued to appear with her mother and sisters and record songs on her own. In February 1953, she recorded “Juke Box Blues,” which she wrote on her own, and “No Swallerin’ Place,” which she wrote with Frank Loesser. In 1962, she and her distant cousin Merle Kilgore wrote “(Love’s) Ring of Fire,” which Anita Carter recorded in 1962. Johnny Cash’s version, released in 1963 and featuring mariachi horns, a faster tempo, and a shorter title, proved far more popular, reaching No. 1 on the country chart.
With Johnny Cash
In December 1961, Johnny Cash, then one of the biggest names in country music, invited June Carter, her mother, and her sisters to tour with him. Cash was addicted to amphetamines, and Carter spent much of the tour protecting him from himself. When, in 1964, she and Cash released a single of Bob Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” the two were romantically involved.
Carter and Nix divorced in 1966, Cash and his wife, Vivian Liberto Cash, late in 1967. That same year, Carter and Cash released “Jackson,” which rose to No. 2 on the country chart and in 1968 won a Grammy Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences for Best Country and Western Performance Duet, Trio, or Group. Carter, her mother, and her sisters continued to tour with Cash, who on February 22, 1968, proposed marriage to Carter onstage at an Ontario, Canada, hockey arena. The couple married a week later, on March 1, 1968, at the First Methodist Church in Franklin, Kentucky. They had one child, John Carter Cash, born in 1970.
By 1969, Johnny Cash was the biggest artist in country music, and his new wife accompanied him everywhere. She appeared on his album At Folsom Prison, recorded live on January 13, 1968, and its follow-up, At San Quentin, recorded on February 24, 1969. She appeared regularly on the television variety program The Johnny Cash Show, which ran from June 1969 until March 1971. In 1970, the couple won a second Grammy Award for “If I Were a Carpenter,” which peaked at No. 2 on the country chart.
In 1975, Carter Cash released her first solo album, Appalachian Pride, which was neither a critical nor a commercial success. In 1979 her first memoir, Among My Klediments, was published. (“Klediments” is an Appalachian word for mementos.) The book presents an upbeat version of her life story that emphasizes her Christian faith and her belief that the key to happiness is for a women to put “God first, husband second, and children next.”
At the time, Carter Cash’s marriage was in enough trouble that she asked for divorce papers to be drawn up. The couple reconciled, however, even as Johnny Cash’s career began to flag and he continued to struggle with drug addiction.
In 1987, Carter Cash published a second memoir, From the Heart, this one much darker in tone than its predecessor. It described the death of Patsy Cline and the burglary of a Cash mansion in Jamaica in 1980 in which three armed men stole money and jewelry while the family was held hostage. Like her husband, she also continued to be addicted to drugs; in 1993 she passed out in her dressing room at a theater in Branson, Missouri, where the Cashes regularly played to small crowds. In 1994, Johnny Cash’s career rebounded with the first of a series of critically acclaimed records for the producer Rick Rubin, and in 1999, Carter Cash released a second solo album, Press On, which won a Grammy Award in 2000 for Best Traditional Folk Album.
Carter Cash died on May 15, 2003, at Baptist Hospital, in Nashville, a few weeks after suffering a coronary arrest and slipping into a coma. She was buried on May 18 at Hendersonville Memory Gardens, in Hendersonville, Tennessee. Johnny Cash died on September 12. Carter Cash’s son, John Carter Cash, produced and released her posthumous solo album, Wildwood Flower, in 2003. Two years later, the feature film Walk the Line, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, was released. It told the story of Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash and won five Oscar nominations from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2006.