Before she was known worldwide as the wife of Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash carved her own path as a multi-talented entertainer and country music trailblazer. Born into country royalty as a member of the legendary Carter Family, June grew up onstage touring with her relatives. By her teens, she had developed into a star performer herself – singing, playing instruments, and wowing audiences with her natural humor and showmanship.
Though June later became closely associated with Johnny Cash, her solo accomplishments and artistry have often lingered in his shadow even long after both musicians passed away. The new documentary June aims to shine a spotlight on June Carter Cash’s life and career, separate from her famous husband. As one of country music’s most influential matriarchs, she made an indelible impact not just through her vocals and songwriting, but through her mentorship of younger artists.
June honors the spirited woman behind the public persona, shedding light on her lesser-known struggles and triumphs. Interviews with her family and fellow artists paint an intimate portrait of Carter Cash’s passions as an entertainer. From her girlhood stint as a comedian to her Grammy-winning comeback late in life, she forged her own trailblazing path even as she guided the careers of others. More than just Mrs. Johnny Cash, she served as the heart and soul of country music during a transformative era. June invites viewers into her complicated, vibrant world.
A Star from the Start
Born in 1929 as Valerie June Carter, June was country music royalty from birth as the daughter of Maybelle Carter of the legendary Carter Family act. She hit the road touring with her relatives when she was just 10 years old, soon standing out as a charismatic stage presence alongside her mother and sisters. Though initially shy, June quickly blossomed into an entertainer adept at singing, dancing, playing instruments, and cracking jokes to charm audiences.
“She was born to be on stage – she came out of the womb and never looked back,” recalls friend and journalist John Carter Cash in the documentary. Her girlish voice lent itself well to country harmonies with her relatives, but it was June’s bubbly, magnetic personality that made her a fan favorite. She assumed the role of comedian, dishing out self-deprecating hillbilly humor and stealing laughs from crowds with her exaggerated rural accent and endless wit.
Yet the country music scene of the 1940s and 50s imposed strict gender constraints, viewing women artists as homemaker types rather than professional entertainers. Female performers in Nashville faced immense pressure to wear conservative gingham dresses and project a wholesome image at all times. Still, gutsy June refused to be confined to stale expectations, pushing boundaries with her silly onstage antics and ambitious dreams beyond music.
At age 22, June married rising country star Carl Smith, giving birth to a daughter named Carlene a year later. Although the marriage only lasted five years, divorce still carried stigma for women in conservative Nashville. Bravely unwilling to limit herself, June moved to New York City in 1956 to study acting with the likes of Paul Newman and Steve McQueen while flying back to perform at the Grand Ole Opry on weekends.
“June Carter was not going to be boxed in,” remarks singer-songwriter Vince Gill of her boldness. Despite labels of a “scarlet woman” post-divorce, June wouldn’t conform to anyone’s standards but her own – whether cracking jokes backstage or fighting for creative freedom. She had carved her own space in country music on her own terms.
Ambition Above All
June Carter Cash continually sought creative fulfillment both professionally and personally, even when society pressed her to simply settle down and raise a family. After divorcing Carl Smith in the late 1950s, June put aside country music briefly to move to New York City and enroll in acting classes. She crossed paths with Hollywood stars like Paul Newman, Marlon Brando, and Steve McQueen while studying method acting and drama, fearlessly chasing artistic growth during an era when women faced judgement for ambition.
“She went to New York to study acting and was very serious about it,” remarks Carlene Carter, June’s daughter. “She wasn’t just there to flap her eyelashes. She wanted to be good.”
Yet her passion for performing and connection to music community pulled June back to Nashville on weekends for Grand Ole Opry appearances. At age 30, she fell in love with rising country star Edwin “Rip” Nix and found herself married again in 1957, giving birth to another daughter named Rosie the following year.
Though Rip supported June’s singing career, she still struggled privately with the complexities of juggling life as an artist, wife, and mother. “I created this little hillbilly girl who would do anything for a laugh, but it wasn’t truly me,” June candidly admits in old interview footage. Behind the over-the-top public persona, she grappled with her identity as a woman torn between creative ambitions and expectations around marriage.
The documentary suggests June suppressed part of herself in those years devoted to family life, longing for the stimulation of touring and recording. “I think there was an absolute lack of fulfillment,” muses Rosanne Cash, June’s step-daughter. Though she presented a sunny, domestic face to the public, her daughter Carlene hints June felt trapped in her second marriage as she watched fellow artists flourish.
Still, no amount of societal pressure could extinguish June’s fiery passion as a performer and songwriter. When love shook her world once more in the 1960s, her heartache and passion would only fuel raw creative expression. Ambition and family bonds could co-exist, June discovered, even in a society skeptical of women daring to have both.
Raw Emotion into Legendary Lines
While June Carter Cash made her mark as a charismatic stage performer, her legacy as a songwriter often gets overshadowed – wrongly so. She penned some of country music’s most enduring anthems, translating her deepest pains and passions into bold lyrics that still resonate today.
“She was a great writer – anybody can tell that from her songs,” remarks frequent collaborator and friend Marty Stuart in interview footage. “She wrote from the gut and the heart.”
When June fell for Johnny Cash as their respective marriages collapsed in the early 1960s, the emotional firestorm ignited her songwriting talents. Struggling privately with societal judgement of their affair, June poured her anguish into penning “Ring of Fire” in 1962 (with co-writer Merle Kilgore). Haunted by their forbidden desire, she captured the rapture and torment of love turned volatile.
“It burns, burns, burns, the ring of fire,” she cries in the hit song that would become one of Cash’s signatures. Yet as Reese Witherspoon points out, June deserves far more credit for writing the lyrics than posterity grants her.
Even Cash himself incorrectly recounted the song’s authorship at times, overlooking his pivotal creative partner. “She wrote it about the fact that she was falling in love with my dad even though she was still married to Rip Nix,” June’s daughter Rosie observes, setting the record straight. Beyond “Ring of Fire,” June contributed lyric ideas to many Cash classics in their 13 years of marriage, including “If I Were a Carpenter.”
June always wrote viscerally from personal experience – from the agony of loving Cash to the sweetness of standing by him through addiction and imprisonment. Her solo album Press On, recorded in her final years, showcases her at the creative peak of her songwriting prowess even in her twilight.
The bittersweet, gently wise lyrics of songs like “Where We’ll Never Grow Old” encapsulate June’s lifelong blend of steely resilience and playful warm-heartedness. For those who recognize her intimate solo artistry, June Carter Cash clearly emerges as far more than just the wife of an icon. She deserves acknowledgment as a brilliant songwriter in her own right.
From Friendship to Soulmates
As touring musicians in the early 1960s, June Carter and Johnny Cash formed a playful friendship backstage and on the road while both remained loyally married to their spouses. However, their chemistry soon ignited into a fiery, all-consuming passion neither could resist. Entangled in an affair, they weathered judgement from friends and family before June issued Cash an ultimatum: get clean for good and commit to me.
The two had bonded through music from the start, but became especially close while filming a movie together in 1962. “The attraction was already just raging,” Cash recalls in archival interview footage. Bashful flirtations gave way to stolen kisses and eventually a full-blown love affair, despite attempts to suppress their feelings out of duty to their families.
“To fall in love when you’re already married and have children, and also divorced in a conservative field – they were really swimming against the stream,” remarks Johnny and June’s son, John Carter Cash. Nevertheless, neither could deny their electrifying spiritual connection. Close friend Marty Stuart muses, “They caught fire. And when they caught fire, it burned.”
Their incendiary passion fueled June’s song “Ring of Fire,” which she penned amid their secret relationship. The lyrics encapsulate the thrilling, sensual rapture she felt with Cash, edged with anxiety over societal scorn regarding divorce and remarriage. However, fans would have to wait five years after the song debuted for the couple to wed.
While touring with Cash in 1967, June issued him an ultimatum: he had six months to get sober and stable before she would consider leaving her husband and marrying him. True to her word, when Cash completed rehab and committed to maintaining his recovery, June filed for divorce and took the leap into marriage with him in 1968.
Over 35 years until June’s death, soulmates June and Johnny endured relapses, family losses, career struggles and constant time on the road side-by-side. “She redeemed me,” Cash declared of June’s steadfast partnership through all storms. Their enduring love nurtured both their lives, even if matters weren’t always idyllic behind closed doors. Together they crystallized an iconic image of wild passion tempered by loyalty and tenderness through the decades.
Creative Fire Burning to the End
Even in her twilight years, June Carter Cash continued creating music with youthful vigor and an overflowing well of inspiration. The 1998 album Press On marked a late-career renaissance for June at nearly 70 years old, though country radio initially ignored her first solo work in decades. Undeterred, she channeled a lifetime of experience into wise lyrics and infectious rhythmic energy that ultimately scored her a Grammy.
Framed around studio footage of June recording Press On, the documentary revels in her enduring star power and charisma humming through the album’s sessions. Backed by a stellar band including husband Johnny on guitar, June leads the charge from the very first take, cheerfully guiding the musicians to follow her lead. Though battling illness and fatigue, she attacks songs both classic and new with full-throated gusto from her gut.
“She’s just still got that thing, whatever it is,” effuses Marty Stuart as footage shows June in peak form, smiling as she jams on autoharps and ukuleles. The album emerged as a surprise critical smash, taking home the Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album in 1999. But beyond trophies and kudos, Press On validated that June still overflowed with more music inside her – enough to fill volumes more.
In her last years, June continued touring regularly with Johnny and guesting on albums by young torchbearers like Elvis Costello. “They lived more life than 10 people together,” John Carter Cash comments of his resilient parents still generating art even amid declining health. Still a sparkling, magnetic stage presence leading singalongs from her director’s chair when illness limited her mobility, June performed up to just months before her death in 2003.
Right up until the end, she continued to inspire fellow musicians half her age with her energy and passion. The creative fire inside June Carter Cash never flickered – it raged brightly until her final day.
Guiding Light of Country
While beloved for her own artistry, June Carter Cash made an equally indelible impact as a nurturer and mentor – a mother figure to country music itself. She guided Johnny Cash’s life and career during decades of turbulent times, standing as his rock through addiction battles and career lulls. Her children also attest she fostered their creativity on the road, exposing them to historical sites that inspired their own artistic passions.
However, June also acted as a steadfast mentor for many young country artists following in her footsteps. “She mothered all of us,” remarks Carlene Carter, describing June’s unconditional support through Carlene’s bumpy early career. Fellow legends like Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson also warmly credit June’s generosity in sharing wisdom and humor backstage.
Indeed, her sly Southern wit and authentic personality may be what so many colleagues remember best of June. “You could talk to her about anything and she made you feel like you were the only person in the world,” muses Reese Witherspoon of their encounters during Walk the Line filming. The documentary suggests June’s legacy lives on through the humor and strength she awakened in others.
When June passed away unexpectedly in 2003, just four months before Johnny Cash died, the country world grieved losing one of its brightest guiding lights. “I miss her presence in country music,” remarks singer Martina McBride tearfully in the film. Though only 73 when heart surgery complications took her life, June Carter Cash had nurtured country music for over six decades – leaving an influence spanning generations. The matriarch may be gone, but her inspiration propels country music onward.
An Exceptional Life Takes Center Stage
Above all, June Carter Cash lived life fully – never half-hearted in anything she did. As a performer, she sang with her entire spirit, entertaining crowds with raw authenticity spiked by her one-of-a-kind humor. As a wife and mother, she nurtured with fierce devotion. And as an artist, she continually evolved across six decades in the spotlight, letting her creative spirit guide her ambitions.
Though fate and love intertwined her destiny with Johnny Cash’s, June’s solo legacy shines brightly thanks to her virtuosity across so many areas of culture. The excellent documentary June at last brings June Carter Cash out from her iconic husband’s shadow into her rightful place in the spotlight. Through insights from family and colleagues, enchanting archival footage, and her stellar music, we meet the playful yet resilient woman behind decades of myths.
Above all, June makes clear that June Carter Cash warrants celebration on her own merits – not just as Mrs. Johnny Cash. As daughter Carlene Carter summarizes, “Mama was epic. She was just epic.” No words ring more truly about country music’s beloved funny girl. This affectionate, eye-opening film at last gives an authentic 20th century legend her due.
With intimacy and affection, June finally renders June Carter Cash in all her spirited complexity. Director Kristen Vaurio reintroduces fans to the woman behind the icon's persona through rich archival footage and insights from loved ones. We see Carter Cash's passions and flaws, her comedy and wisdom - the many facets beyond "Johnny Cash's wife." Anchored by a career-capping late period renaissance, it reveals the fulfillment she chased as an artist, wife, and mentor until her final days. June stands as a worthy ode to the matriarch of country music and an entertaining watch for fans and newcomers alike.
- Extensive archival footage brings June Carter Cash to vivid life
- Insightful interviews with family and friends add intimacy
- Spotlights her overlooked accomplishments as an artist
- Strong direction anchors film around her later career renaissance
- Balances celebration of her legacy with honest perspective
- Could have delved deeper into some complex dynamics
- Length felt too short to fully encapsulate a remarkable life
- Non-country fans may be lost without more context