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June Carter Cash steps out on her own for the first time in 25 years

By Michael McCall

MAY 24, 1999:  Johnny and June Carter Cash live in an expansive, uniquely shaped home that edges Old Hickory Lake in Hendersonville. There are no dividing walls between rooms in the oblong-shaped house, which has been built to blend into the lush, green hills and woodlands that surround it. The bottom floor, which opens onto the lake, is largely for entertaining. It features a music room and an enormous dining area with stout, dark wood furniture and heavy, gleaming silver serving sets.

The third floor is private, for the most part, with an enormous master bedroom crammed with one-of-a-kind furniture, huge portraits and pieces of art, and the peculiarly personal comforts of its occupants. Daily activity focuses on the second floor, which includes a long kitchen area, a guest bedroom where the ailing family patriarch often naps, and a sitting room full of plump chairs and family mementos.

The keepsakes, of course, are many. As the first person inducted into both the country and the rock 'n' roll halls of fame, Cash has an immense number of plaques and trophies. Situated among them are many photos of Cash and Carter posing with various celebrities, politicians, and religious figures, and in various exotic locales.

Amidst all the furnishings and the awards and the photographs, one item in particular stands out: It's a mint-condition cover of June Carter Cash's 1975 solo album, Appalachian Pride, which sits resting on a wrought-iron bracket on an end table. The placement of the LP suggests that, for all the things she's done in her long and varied career, the singer is especially proud of this effort.

It also suggests why, at age 69, Carter Cash is back with the second solo collection of her career. "I've been really happy just traveling with John and being Mrs. Johnny Cash all these years," she said in a recent interview at the Cash estate. "But I'm also really happy and surprised that someone wanted me to make another album, and I'm real proud of what we've done."

She should be. Press On will likely be one of the most acclaimed, and most talked about, country albums of 1999, even if the stark, primitive nature of the recording keeps it from receiving the widespread radio airplay it deserves.

Once one of the most popular stars of the Grand Ole Opry, where she was known for her comic songs and colorfully outrageous performing style, Carter Cash has spent the last five decades sharing the spotlight with her famous husband or with her mother, sisters, and daughters in the similarly renowned Carter Family. But the new album suggests that she could have brought a passionate voice and spiritual center to country music had she pursued recording with the same vigor that she gave to caring for her extended family. On Press On, her pitch may sometimes waver and the arrangements may not unfold with the precision of most modern recordings, but the songs own more heart and truth than anything country radio will play this year.

"Her time is now," Johnny Cash told a celebrity-packed gathering of friends, family, and press representatives May 15 on the grounds of the Cash estate, where the couple hosted a buffet dinner and hour-long performance by Carter Cash. "I've encouraged it all these years, to let people know what she has to offer.... Now you know."

Singing in a raw-boned voice as harsh and sweet as the autoharp she plays, Carter Cash makes up for her lack of technique with songs of undistilled emotion. Perhaps driven by the recent death of her sister Helen and the debilitating illness of her husband, who has suffered from a rare nerve disorder, Shy-Drager Syndrome, for the last year-and-a-half, this grand lady of American folk music has assembled an album of unpolished acoustic music that juxtaposes Carter Family standards, deeply felt mountain hymns, and anecdotal originals. There's even a hilarious, grandmotherly take on film director Quentin Tarantino, as told in a musical note to her granddaughter, Tiffany Anastasia Lowe.

For our interview, Carter Cash suggested we go to a rustic log cabin located back in the woods on the Cash estate. Easing a black Mercedes sedan along a thin strip of dirt road, she explained that she and her husband used the cabin as a personal refuge. "We put it back here so that when things got too tough, we could run in here and go back about 100 or 150 years," she says. "Both of us grew up like that, so that's why we like it so much. And we wanted our son John Carter to be able to shovel chicken manure as he grew up. We thought it would give him character."

The cabin sits on a large tract of undeveloped woodland. To the natural habitat, which teems with deer and wild hogs and turkey, the family has added buffalo and such exotic animals as emu, ostrich, and llama. The wildlife has proven treacherous on occasion: An ostrich once kicked Cash and broke five of his ribs, and emus have bitten Emmylou Harris and Tom Petty during visits.

Even so, it becomes clear soon enough why Carter Cash prefers to discuss the new album in this remote corner of the Cash estate. Press On, she explains, was born from the persistence of former Guns 'n' Roses associate Vicki Hamilton, who saw her perform an original, unrecorded song during a Johnny Cash show in Los Angeles. Hamilton dogged her until she agreed to be the debut artist for the music executive's new indie label, Small Hairy Dog, an affiliate of L.A.-based Risk Records. "They certainly took a risk with me," the singer laughs.

Hamilton told Carter Cash she could choose from the most expensive studios in California or Nashville. The singer chose to record at home. "I told her that it's not the best studio, but that we had this little cabin, and it was where John recorded part of his album with Rick Rubin," she says, referring to her husband's landmark 1994 album, American Recordings. "It was just an idea I had, but once we got started, I realized how important it was that we recorded it back here. When I come out here, it takes me back to where I'm from. It's a very simple, very old place. That's the kind of thing I like."

That rustic, familial spirit winds throughout Press On. In fact, Carter Cash has been performing several of the album's songs since she learned to speak. These include the Carter Family's "Diamonds in the Rough," "Meeting in the Air," and a stunningly effective, slowed-down version of "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" that gives the oft-performed tune a fresh perspective. "I wanted the first and last song to be Carter Family songs," she explains. "Those are my bookends, because everything I'll ever do is framed by that. What's in between is basically who I am."

The spirituals include an achingly delicate Carter Cash original, "Wings of Angels," which she describes as her favorite on the album, and "Far Side Banks of Jordan," written by a Nashville schoolteacher, Terry Smith. Her husband brought the song with them on a trip to Jamaica and played it for her. After they both wiped away tears, he told her it would be their song and that some day they would record it together.

The song opens with Cash intoning the opening lines in his familiar baritone: "I believe my steps are growing wearier each day, got another journey on my mind. Lures of this old world have ceased to make me want to stay, and my one regret is leaving you behind." Together, the two singers pledge that, whoever precedes the other in leaving the physical world behind will be sitting "on the far side banks of Jordan" waiting for the other to cross.

The spiritual tunes give Press On a soulful core, but it's Carter Cash's secular songs that give the album its vivid personality. Besides "Ring of Fire"--a song she cowrote (with Merle Kilgore) and performed before her husband made it his own--she sings a first-person cheating song, a murder ballad, and a surreal tale about her days in New York. Another song poignantly discusses the singer's friendships with such legendary figures as Elvis Presley, James Dean, Hank Williams, Tennessee Williams, Marlon Brando, and Patsy Cline. As for her song about Quentin Tarantino and her granddaughter, an aspiring actress, it humorously suggests that Tiffany Anastasia Lowe jump in an earthquake crack to avoid encountering the filmmaker, who Carter Cash says "makes the strangest movies I have ever seen."

The album includes contributions from Marty Stuart, Rodney Crowell, Norman Blake, niece Rosie Carter, and son John Carter Cash, who also engineered the album. Since Stuart was once married to her stepdaughter Cindy Cash, and Crowell is the former husband of stepdaughter Rosanne Cash--and because Tiffany's father, Nick Lowe (ex-husband of her daughter Carlene), was originally going to be a collaborator as well--for a while the singer planned to call the album June Carter Cash and Her Ex-Sons-in-Law.

Now that the album is out and receiving a favorable reception, Carter Cash says she's overjoyed that she decided to make the album the way she did. "It's an honest performance," she says. "The records I hear anymore are so slick. What we wanted was something real."

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