Johnny Cash met June Carter, and the rest is history. That pretty much sums it up, right? Well, there’s a lot more to their story. This is the true story of one of the most spoken about couples in country music history and one of the greatest love stories of all time. From Johnny’s on-the-spot proposal to June in 1968 to the lyrical love letters he wrote to her during their relationship, all the way to the end of their lives, these two were the living embodiment of their wedding vows – till death do them apart.
The two singers were famous in the 1960s, but they weren’t just popular for their music. Many people have seen the 2005 film Walk the Line, with Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix, which gave a cinematic look into their life and relationship. But their real-life story has a lot more to it than a two-hour film. Theirs is full of ups and downs, which makes their relationship even more admirable.
So let’s start at the beginning…
Valerie June Carter was born in Maces Springs, Virginia on June 23, 1929. She was a musician born and bred as the daughter of Ezra and Maybelle Carter. Maybelle played with the successful country and folk band, the Carter Family, with June’s uncle A.P. Carter since 1927. By the time June was ten, she had started contributing her voice to the band.
In the 1940s June, her mother and her two sisters, Helen and Anita, formed a group of their own: Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters. They traveled the country, played radio shows, and eventually joined the Grand Ole Opry, a national country music showcase. It was with the Opry that June met Carl Smith, a honky-tonk singer whom she married in 1952. She was 23 years old. They had a daughter, Carlene, who herself became a successful country musician.
This was before Johnny came into the picture…
J.R. Cash was from Cleveland County, Arkansas, born on February 26, 1932. He would later take on the name John when an Air Force recruiter insisted on it since he wouldn’t accept only initials. J.R. supposedly was a compromise between his parents, who simply couldn’t agree on a name. Later on, Sun Records founder Sam Phillips was credited with adapting the name to Johnny.
Johnny’s young life was struck by tragedy when his older brother, Jack, died in an industrial accident when sawing wood. Johnny was 12 at the time. According to his sister, he helped dig Jack’s grave on the morning of the funeral and stood throughout the entire service covered in dirt. Story has it that Johnny was never the same.
In 1950, Cash graduated high school and took on a number of temporary jobs before deciding to join the Air Force. Before he was shipped off to Germany in 1951, he met his first wife, Vivian Liberto, at a roller skating rink in San Antonio. They had begun a whirlwind of a romance. And throughout Cash’s service, the young couple exchanged a massive volume of letters.
The romance continued through his four years in the service. Then when he returned to the United States in 1954, they got married. Johnny and Vivian went on to have not one, not two, but four daughters: Rosanne, Kathy, Cindy, and Tara.
And all this was before June came into the picture and changed everything…
Johnny and Vivian moved to Memphis where Cash spent some time selling appliances before his brother Roy introduced him to guitarists Luther Perkins and Marshall Grant (who would later become his backup players, known as the Tennessee Two). After introducing himself to Sam Phillips in 1955, Cash played an original song of his, “Hey Porter.”
Philips liked what he heard and asked if he could write a sad song to go with it. Cash, the aspiring songwriter, went home and wrote the song “Cry, Cry, Cry,” in just 15 minutes. It was then recorded in May of that year and issued with the song “Porter.” This was the beginning of Cash’s road to fame. The same road that would also lead to June Carter…
In July of 1956, Johnny made his debut on the Grand Ole Opry stage – the showcase that June was already a part of. He had just released the song “I Walk the Line,” which was at that time a rare crossover hit for fans of pop and country. June Carter’s husband and singer Carl Smith welcomed Cash to the show. He had no idea at that moment that he was essentially introducing his wife to her future husband.
It was a backstage introduction between Johnny and June that would make the biggest impact on Cash. “I’ve always wanted to meet you,” Cash, who grew up listening to June perform with her family, told her. Carter was fresh off a tour with Cash’s friend and fellow musician, Elvis Presley.
Something that many people don’t know is that Elvis Presley played a part in the couple meeting. According to June herself, “I first heard of Johnny through Elvis Presley. Elvis would make me go into these little cafés and listen to John on the jukebox when we played in the South – in the Carolinas and all down through Florida and Georgia.”
And at that’s why when at that moment backstage at the Grand Ole Opry, when Johnny told her that he always wanted to meet her, June responded with: “I feel like I know you already.” June later wrote in the notes on Cash’s 2000 box set, “Love, God, Murder,” that she “can’t remember anything else we talked about, except his eyes.”
In June’s words: “One night backstage at the Opry, this man walked up to me and said, ‘I want to meet you, I’m Johnny Cash.’ And I said, ‘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.'” And thus, the story of Johnny and June began.
When they met, they were both married to other people. But it was undeniable that there were sparks between the two young musicians. It was a matter of time until those initial sparks turned into flames. But according to The Vintage News, June didn’t fall as quickly for Johnny as he did for her. As well all know, they end up together. And their union started out as professional.
By the early 1960s, June was touring with Johnny regularly as his backup singer, his duet partner, and as an entertainer. By then, June had already divorced Carl Smith, but wait a second – she was not yet available for Johnny. She was in her second marriage to a police officer named Edwin Nix. June and Edwin had a daughter of their own, Rosie (who also became a country musician).
During their time on the road as professional singing partners, Carter and Cash remained married to their partners until 1966 and 1967, respectively. It was in 1966 that Vivian filed for divorce from Johnny, and it took a year until it was finalized. The 60s was a particularly rough time for Johnny.
Throughout the 60s, Johnny was leading a troubled personal life. He was dealing with a serious addiction to drugs and alcohol, and his marriage to Vivian was crumbling down before his eyes due to his frequent absences, infidelities, and addiction. At that point, Johnny was known for canceling or even missing concert appearances.
Meanwhile, June was battling addictions of her own. One day, something happened that had Johnny swearing himself off pills. John Carter Cash (their son) later in life mentioned in his book, “Anchored in Love: The Life and Legacy of June Carter Cash,” that Johnny had wandered one night into a cave on the Tennessee River prepared to die. But he found God instead and returned from the cave to find June and his mother waiting for him with open arms.
After touring together and performing on countless stages, Johnny and June got to know each other well. And as I mentioned before, Johnny fell for June much before she ever realized her feelings for him. By the late 60s, both Johnny and June were newly single after each of their divorces. Johnny was in love with June and had proposed to June several times.
June had initially refused to his proposals as she didn’t want to get involved with someone who had a drug addiction as severe as his. She had also been married twice already with two children from separate fathers. She wasn’t about to be hasty in her decision of who to marry next. But when Johnny surprised her on stage one night, she just couldn’t refuse.
Though Johnny and June have always remained cautious about exactly when and how they got together (I think we can all assume why), what we do know for a fact is that Cash proposed to Carter right there on stage at the London Ice House in front of a crowd of over 7,000 people in February of 1968.
With a proposal like that, how could June say no? By then, Johnny had proposed to her a bunch of times, and June was right in being wary of marrying an addict. But something told her that this man is the real deal. And his love for her was beaming out of him. She said yes, a few weeks past, and the two were already married. They got married in Kentucky on March 1, 1968.
“I realized that oh, my Lord! I think I’m falling in love with Johnny Cash, and this is the most painful thing I’ve ever gone through in my life. It is like I’m in a ring of fire, and I’m never coming out. I’m going down, down to the bottom of this thing,” June openly admitted in an interview. Ring of fire. Sound familiar?
That’s because it was the thought she had that would go on to inspire Cash’s popular duet ‘Ring of Fire’ with Merle Kilgore. The song was actually initially released as a single by June’s sister Anita before being recorded by Cash in 1963. June was feeling strong emotions and those coupled with his proposals and profession of his love for her; she knew that she wouldn’t be able to ignore these feelings for much longer.
“It’s going to kill me, because I would never have the nerve to tell him, nor do I want to tell him, nor do I want anybody even to know I’ve got these feelings. I never talked much about how I fell in love with John,” June told Rolling Stone in a 2000 interview.
“It was not a convenient time for me to fall in love with him, and it wasn’t a convenient time for him to fall in love with me. I was frightened of his way of life. I thought I couldn’t fall in love with this man, but it’s just like a ring of fire.” And that ring of fire was something of a symbol for what their marriage would be like. A marriage filled with passion and flames – both good and bad.
Once they became a couple and got married, they remained supportive of each other. “I’ve always walked along right by his side, and he’s always supported everything I do,” June told Fame 10. They would leave love notes around for each other, showing one another that they were on each other’s minds. However, and needless to say, it wasn’t always a smooth ride.
Their marriage involved endless cycles of rehab, near-death experiences, interventions, and affairs. Not to mention totally understandable paranoia as the two of them had their own demons. Johnny’s addictions didn’t just revolve around drugs and alcohol. He also had an affair with June’s sister when June was pregnant with their only son John. And that wasn’t even the end of it.
Johnny has mentioned that his childhood was filled with verbal abuses that he witnessed being exchanged between his parents. In the course of his life, Johnny had been arrested seven times, but despite his outlaw reputation, he never actually spent much time in jail. Most of his offenses revolved around drugs or alcohol.
In 1965, he was arrested after crossing the border from Texas to Juarez, Mexico. He was caught returning to the United States with more than 1,000 amphetamine tablets. That same year he accidentally set fire to a part of the Los Padres National Forest in California. His camper caught fire, which burned hundreds of acres of forest. The government sued him for the crime, meaning Cash was the first person ever to be sued by the U.S. government for starting a forest fire.
June and Johnny had both struggled with addiction and, in many ways, enabled one another. While Carter herself was dealing with addiction issues (which was detailed in John Carter Cash’s 2007 book), Cash did actually credit June with helping him toward his path to sobriety. That’s where his personal journey to the cave comes in.
The story he told of wandering into a cave only to find God and then June and his mother waiting with open arms – Cash said that was the day that he swore himself off pills. But then again, Robert Hilburn’s 2013 biography of Johnny Cash points out that the particular cave in Tennessee would have been flooded at the time. But I think we can say that that’s beside the point.
Johnny and June learned to forgive each other for the mistakes they each had made, the errors they were making on their own, and against each other. For them, the bond they created was one they valued more than anything. It was a bond that surpassed everything that came between them. And for 35 years, they stayed strong.
In June’s words regarding Johnny as a husband: “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. I’m proud to be walking in the wake of Johnny’s fame.” But it wasn’t just Johnny that was famous.
Together, the couple continued in their fruitful musical careers for many years. They shared Grammy awards in 1967 and 1970, which are in addition to their individual awards: 2 solo Grammys for June Carter and 11 for Johnny Cash, including a lifetime achievement award. They also had their own show, The Johnny Cash Show
The show was a TV variety program that featured musical guests like Bob Dylan and Kris Kristofferson between 1969 and 1971. Aside from their music, they also bore a son, their only child, John Carter Cash, who was born in 1970. He is yet another child of June’s that became a musician and music producer in his own right. We’ve heard a lot from June, but what about Johnny?
“You still fascinate and inspire me. You influence me for the better. You’re the object of my desire, the #1 Earthly reason for my existence.” That’s what Johnny wrote to his wife on her 65th birthday. “We got old and got used to each other. We think alike. We read each other’s minds. We know what the other wants without asking.”
“Sometimes we irritate each other a little bit. Maybe sometimes we take each other for granted. But once in a while, like today, I meditate on it and realize how lucky I am to share my life with the greatest woman I ever met.” Does anyone else have goosebumps or even a tear dwelling in their eye? Okay, so it’s not just me.
The couple stayed together for the rest of their lives, ‘till death did them apart. They passed away just four months apart. June was the first to go, in May 2003. Cash died in September of the same year. June died in Nashville, Tennessee, on May 15 at the age of 73. It was due to complications following a heart-valve replacement surgery.
She was surrounded by her family, including her husband. At her funeral, her stepdaughter, Rosanne Cash, said: “If being a wife were a corporation, June would have been a CEO. It was her most treasured role.” Johnny died four months later, at 71, and her daughter, Rosie Nix Adams, only a month after that. Johnny, June, and Rosie are buried in the Hendersonville Memory Gardens by their home in Hendersonville, Tennessee.
During the last stage of his career, Cash released a few albums: “American III: Solitary Man” (in 2000) and “American IV: The Man Comes Around” (in 2002). “American IV” included cover songs of 20th-century rock artists, like “Hurt” by Nine Inch Nails and “Personal Jesus” by Depeche Mode.
Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails once commented on how he was initially skeptical about Johnny’s plan to cover “Hurt,” but when he heard it, he was impressed and moved by Johnny’s rendition. The video clip for Cash’s “Hurt” received both critical and popular acclaim, and even won him a Grammy Award. Even in his final moments, Cash was making a lasting impression as an artist. But his health was getting much worse.
Before June’s passing in May of 2003, she had told him to keep working and stay busy. So he continued to record music, completing 60 more songs during the last four months of his life. But he was already sick. Back in 1997, Cash was diagnosed with a neurodegenerative disease called Shy–Drager syndrome, which is a form of multiple system atrophy.
According to Robert Hilburn (who wrote his biography), his disease was originally misdiagnosed as Parkinson’s. Cash had even announced to his audience in Flint, Michigan, on October 25, 1997, that he had Parkinson’s after almost collapsing on stage. He even performed a few surprise shows at the Carter Family Fold in Virginia. Then on July 5, 2003, Johnny Cash performed live for the last time.
At the July 5, 2003 concert, before singing “Ring of Fire,” Cash read a statement he wrote about his late wife. He had written it before taking the stage: “The spirit of June Carter overshadows me tonight with the love she had for me and the love I have for her. We connect somewhere between here and Heaven. She came down for a short visit, I guess, from Heaven to visit with me tonight to give me courage and inspiration like she always has. She’s never been one for me except courage and inspiration. I thank God for June Carter. I love her with all my heart.”
Cash’s final recordings were made on August 21, 2003, with songs like “Like the 309.” The final song he completed was “Engine 143,” which was recorded for his son John. The song was meant to be put on a Carter Family tribute album.
Cash’s diagnosis changed to Shy–Drager. The diagnosis was altered yet again to be named as autonomic neuropathy associated with diabetes. Cash was told that he had about 18 months to live. So while his wife passed away first, Johnny knew that his turn would come shortly after. The illness forced him to shorten his touring. He was then hospitalized in 1998 with severe pneumonia, which ultimately damaged his lungs.
While he was hospitalized at Baptist Hospital in Nashville, Johnny Cash died of complications from diabetes on September 12, 2003. Before he passed, however, Cash wrote an autobiography. In it, he wrote how he was diagnosed with Shy-Drager Syndrome during a trip to New York City in 1997.
Cash was raised by parents who were in the Southern Baptist denomination of Christianity. He had been baptized in 1944 in the Tyronza River in Arkansas. He was a troubled but devout Christian, who was once characterized as a “lens through which to view American contradictions and challenges.” Cash was a biblical scholar who wrote a Christian novel called “Man in White” in 1986.
In the introduction, he wrote about a reporter who questioned whether his book was written from a Baptist, Catholic, or Jewish perspective. Cash’s reply: “I’m a Christian. Don’t put me in another box.” In the mid-70s, Cash and June completed a course of Bible studies through Christian International Bible College. The two also incorporated religion into their music.
As we know, Cash experienced early tragedy when the brother (two years older than him) that he loved and looked up to died suddenly in an accident. For Johnny, Jack was both a protector and a philosophical inspiration. Jack was young but frequently spoke of his interest in the Bible and was set on becoming a preacher.
Jack worked to support their large family, and one day while cutting wood, he was accidentally pulled into a table saw. Jack lingered on for a week after the accident, but there was no chance of surviving such an incident. By all reports, Johnny became more introspective afterward and spent more time alone, writing stories and songs. Jack’s words on his deathbed affected Johnny deeply on a spiritual level.
Cash’s devotion to his brother would remain a constant in his life. Similar to the Christian phrase, “What would Jesus do?” Cash would instead ask himself, “What would Jack do?” whenever he was faced with a difficult situation. It’s likely that Jack was the reason Johnny eventually became an ordained minister.
Once he married June, Cash began a decades-long re-examination of his life. He went back to his Christian roots. After two and a half years of Bible study in the late 70s, he received a degree in theology and became an ordained minister. Although he never tried to start a congregation or play a major role in the church services, he did officiate at the wedding of his daughter Karen.
At the Tallahassee Crusade in 1986, June and Johnny sang the song “One of These Days, I’m Gonna Sit down and talk to Paul.” Then at a performance in Arkansas in 1989, Cash spoke to his audience about his commitment to the salvation of both drug dealers and alcoholics. He then sang the song “Family Bible.”
Cash declared that he was “the biggest sinner of them all,” who viewed himself as a complicated and contradictory man. Cash is said to have “contained multitudes” and has was deemed “the philosopher-prince of American country music.” He was also credited with having converted the actor and singer John Schneider, a former Jew, to Christianity.
John and June had more to add to their legacy…
Throughout their life together, June and Johnny worked with and gave money to the group SOS Children’s Villages. Their involvement began in 1973 when they donated $12,000 to build and develop an orphanage in a village in Jamaica village, which was close to a home they had in the country. They would visit the village during the time they spent there. They played with the children and sang to them.
After they died in 2003, their family asked that any further donations be made to the SOS Children’s Villages. A representative of the Prime Minister of Jamaica, P.J. Patterson, said this of the couple’s charity: “A philanthropist extraordinaire, Mrs. Cash made Jamaica her second home and loved and cared deeply for the people of her adopted country. A gifted and talented singer, she and her husband, Johnny Cash, used the very talents for the benefit of many charities in and around Montego Bay.”
Johnny and June were known to write cute little love letters to each other, and lucky for us, they were kept and made available for the world to see. The beautiful letters between the two speak for themselves. One letter wrote: “June, Valentines is fine. But you being mine, is more fine. Thine,
The valentine that Johnny gave to June in 1987 was featured in John Carter Cash’s 2011 book “House of Cash.” His book also featured the note Cash wrote to June for her 65th birthday that he read on stage (the one I mentioned earlier). It started with “Happy Birthday Princess” and ended with the same line. The man clearly knew how to write – songs and love letters alike.
Cash cared for and defended fellow artists, like Bob Dylan, who were on the fringes of what was acceptable in country music. At an all-star concert in 1999, a diverse group of recording artists paid him tribute. Among those musicians were Bob Dylan, Chris Isaak, Willie Nelson, Wyclef Jean, Kris Kristofferson, Norah Jones, Dom DeLuise, and U2.
Cash himself performed at the end of the show, which was the first time in more than a year of not performing on stage. In total, Cash wrote over 1,000 songs and released dozens of albums. A box CD set called “Unearthed” was released posthumously. The set included a 104-page book discussing each track and featuring one of Johnny’s final interviews.
In 2006, Johnny and June’s lakeside home on Caudill Drive in Hendersonville, Tennessee, was sold to none other than Bee Gees vocalist, Barry Gibb, and his wife Linda for a nice $2.3 million. But in an unfortunate twist of fate, on April 10, 2007, a fire broke out at the house. They were in the middle of major renovations.
The fire spread quickly due to a flammable wood preservative that was being used. The building was completely destroyed. Speaking of Hendersonville, the main street, Highway 31E, is known as Johnny Cash Parkway. Also in the town is the Johnny Cash Museum, which is located in one of Cash’s properties. But in 2006, the House of Cash was sold due to a stipulation in his will.
June Carter was played by Reese Witherspoon in the movie Walk the Line, a 2005 bio-drama of Johnny Cash (who was played by Joaquin Phoenix). The film was mainly about the development of their relationship that took place over the course of 13 years, from when they first met to her final acceptance of his proposal.
Did you know that Witherspoon performed all the vocals for the role? Who knew she had such a good voice! She sang many of June’s famous songs, including “Juke Box Blues” and “Jackson” with Phoenix. For her part as June Carter, she won multiple awards, including an Academy Award, Golden Globe, BAFTA, and Screen Actors Guild Award for Best Actress. Musician and actress Jewel also portrayed June in the TV movie ‘Ring of Fire’ in 2013. The film was based on John Carter Cash’s memoir.
Cash may have recorded his most popular and best-selling albums in prisons, like Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison in 1968 and Johnny Cash at San Quentin in 1969, he himself never spent much time in prison. He was, however, sympathetic to the plight of inmates. Cash was arrested a total of seven times and spent a few nights in jail.
His most famous arrest was in El Paso, Texas, in October 1965 when he brought all those pills from Mexico. But other than drug possession, Cash was arrested for public drunkenness, reckless driving, and memorably, picking flowers all between the years 1959 and 1968. One night in Starkville, Mississippi, Cash was drunk and decided to pick flowers from someone’s yard. He was arrested by local police, put in the Starkville jail, and kicked at the cell door so hard he broke his toe. He wrote a song about this experience, which became a highlight of his “At San Quentin” album.
Cash’s oldest brother, Roy, was the first of the family to take a dip in the music industry. Roy started his own band called the Dixie Rhythm Ramblers, who, for a while, had a show on KCLN radio and played all around Arkansas. Cash’s family regularly sang spirituals together, either at home or around his grandparents’ dinner table.
Despite Johnny’s interest in and talent for music, he wouldn’t get a guitar and start writing songs until he joined the Air Force and went to Germany. He bought his guitar in Öberammergau, which cost five dollars. He started playing with a like-minded servicemen in a scruffy band called the Landsberg Barbarians. He wrote songs, including the first version of “Folsom Prison Blues.”
Many people don’t know that Cash was also a novelist. In 1986, he published “Man in White,” a novel about six years in the life of the apostle Paul, including his conversion on the way to Damascus. The novel was the result of Cash’s deepening interest in the Bible study in the early 80s. It came after his relapse into the pill addiction that plagued him in the 60s.
It’s easy to see the parallels between Paul, who came to Christ through a dramatic conversion from blindness, and Cash, who saw himself as saved from blindness by the “man in white.” The novel was slightly successful and did get positive reviews, mostly from religious journals. But it was a source of pride for Cash, who considered the novel as one of the achievements he was most proud of.
In the late 50s, Cash moved to California. A was already a successful singer by that point, and he wanted to follow his friend Elvis Presley’s lead and make a move onto the big screen. His Hollywood career never really took off, but Cash did appear in various films and TV shows. His first appearance was in the TV Civil War drama ‘The Rebel’ in 1959.
His first movie came two years later in the low-budget crime movie ‘Five Minutes to Live,’ in which he played Johnny Cabot, a criminal who holds the bank president’s wife hostage. For years, Cash’s involvement in movies took the form of performing a song or writing the theme music. And then he starred with Kirk Douglas in ‘A Gunfight,’ a 1971 western.
Although he wrote “Man in Black,” a song that explained the philosophy behind why he is always dressed in black, Cash didn’t always wear black clothes when performing, and he didn’t only wear black in his day-to-day life. His philosophy, by the way, for wearing black was basically a type of protest until people were treated fairly, and injustices were addressed. He cared for inmates, and this was his way of showing them that he cared.
Originally, Cash wore black when on stage because he and his band’s musicians, the Tennessee Two, wanted to have matching outfits. The only piece of clothing they had in common was a black shirt. But early pictures of the band show them wearing lighter colors, and they’re definitely wasn’t any hard-and-fast rule.
Cash would often wear a white t-shirt with a sport coat over it in his appearances and in photoshoots. Sometimes he would even wear an entirely white suit – the complete opposite of a man in black. Album covers show him in other outfits, with stripes, blue denim, and even a grey shirt with a flower design.
In the 70s, the Man in Black image grew even more popular, and Cash began to wear black clothes more consistently. But even in his old age, he was spotted in a light windbreaker or a denim top. His fashion statement had something of a rippling effect on the generations of punk and goth rockers to come, but that wasn’t in his plans.