By Steve Beard
On Thursday, May 15, 2003, June Carter Cash (1929-2003) died of complications from heart surgery. She was 73.
It is strangely fitting that the last time the public saw the face of June Carter Cash was on the enormously popular music video for her husband’s rendition of a song called “Hurt.” She is seen looking down upon her beloved husband, Johnny Cash, as he sings about pain and loss. The well-worn lines upon her face express love, betray concern, and proclaim pride. Johnny was her man through thick and thin.
“I hurt myself today/ To see if I still feel/ I focus on the pain/ The only thing that’s real,” Cash sings. “The needle tears a hole/ The old familiar sting/ Try to kill it all away/ But I remember everything”—a poignant reminder of his dark years in the 1960s.
June remembers those days of thunder and lightening. She stood by Johnny’s side—doing everything she could to break his voracious dependence on pills and save his soul. “She’d take my drugs and throw them away, and we’d have a big fight over it. I’d get some more, and she’d do it again,” Cash recalls. “I’d make her promise not to, but she would do it anyway. She’d lie to me. She’d hide my money. She’d do anything. She fought me with everything she had.”
She waged this war because she loved Cash too much to watch him die. Through the power of prayer and June’s tough love, Johnny was able to break the power of addiction and find peace in his heart. Their love and dependency upon one another become a spectacular love story.
June came from the legendary Carter Family—musical pioneers of folk, country, and bluegrass music. When she met Johnny for the first time backstage at the Grand Ole Opry in the late 1950s, June was singing back-up for Elvis. “I want to meet you. I’m Johnny Cash,” said the tall, lanky Man in Black. She responded by saying, “Well, I ought to know who you are. Elvis can’t even tune his guitar unless he goes, ‘Everybody knows where you go when the sun goes down.’” It was a line from one of Cash’s first hits, “Cry, Cry, Cry.” During their tour, Elvis would drag June along as he popped coins in the jukeboxes throughout the South to hear Cash’s songs.
June joined Cash on the road in 1961. They fell in love while they were still married to other people. “I used to go to church about every day for a year,” recalled June in Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone: The Carter Family & Their Legacy in American Music. “I used to get out my Bible and look through it. I used to wear out my knees and pray.”
“Love is a burning thing,” Johnny would sing, “And it makes a fiery ring/ Bound by wild desire/ I fell into a ring of fire.” Although the song was a huge hit for Cash, it was written by June and her cousin Merle Kilgore. It also best typifies the relationship between Johnny and June.
“One morning, about four o’clock,” recalls June, “I was driving my car just about as fast as I could. I thought, ‘Why am I out on the highway this time of night?’ I was miserable, and it all came to me: ‘I’m falling in love with somebody I have no right to fall in love with.’” She was frightened of his way of life, having seen first-hand the way that lifestyle killed country legend Hank Williams. She thought to herself, “I can’t fall in love with this man, but it’s just like a ring of fire.”
Both Johnny and June knew what was percolating between them. “We knew what was going to happen: that eventually we were both going to be divorced, and we were going to go through hell. Which we did,” recollects Cash. “But the ‘ring of fire’ was not the hell,” he clarifies. “That was kind of a sweet fire. The ring of fire that I found myself in with June was the fire of redemption. It cleansed. It made me believe everything was all right, because it felt so good.”
Together, the two of them would sing, “We got married in a fever/ Hotter than a pepper sprout” for their hit “Jackson” and it serves as a good descriptor of their marriage. “I think all this free love is a passing plaything,” said Cash in a 1971 interview with Redbook magazine. “June and I found what we want in this world, and it’s beautiful, the love we have for each other.… I don’t think there’s anything in this world that could destroy my marriage to June.”
Nearly thirty years later, Cash would tell Rolling Stone that “unconditional love” was the glue of his marriage. “You hear that phrase a lot, but it’s real with me and her. She loves me in spite of everything, in spite of myself. She has saved my life more than once,” he said. “She’s always been there with her love, and it has certainly made me forget the pain for a long time, many times. When it gets dark, and everybody’s gone home and the lights are turned off, it’s just me and her.”
Steve Beard is the creator and curator of Thunderstruck.org. This article is excerpted from Spiritual Journeys (Relevant), where he profiles Johnny Cash.