In the new film JUNE, premiering today (Jan. 16) on Paramount +, vintage footage from 1998 focuses on singer-songwriter June Carter Cash, then age 70, seated with her autoharp at the Cash Cabin Studio in Hendersonville, Tennessee, recording her first solo album in more than two decades.
At one point, as she wraps recording for the day and walks out the front door of the studio, she says, “Let’s press on,” a phrase Carter Cash repeats multiple times throughout the film, an adage that became the title of her 1999 Press On album — and a mantra that led Carter Cash through over six decades as a performer.
“I think that footage is important, because the family from the beginning wanted to make sure to tell a full story,” JUNE director Kristen Vaurio tells Billboard. “This footage from [photographer/videographer] Alan Messer, a lot of that was new to the world, and it’s wonderful because that album is her telling her story through music. It was a gift as far as framing the movie and being able to circle back to it.”
The film’s title alone speaks to the motivation to focus on her complete body of work as an artist — beyond her roles as part of the Carter Family, the “First Family of Country Music,” and wife to superstar Johnny Cash, as well as half of a musical partnership with Cash that brought the Grammy-winning duets “If I Were a Carpenter” and “Jackson.” JUNE reveals the full breadth of this multi-hyphenate singer, songwriter, performer, comedian, actress and author.
Sandbox Succession, a division of Jason Owen’s Sandbox Entertainment which represents the Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash estates, worked with Sony Entertainment (and Owen serves as one of the film’s producers). The documentary features interviews with family members and friends including Carter Cash’s children and step-children, Carlene Carter, Rosanne Cash and John Carter Cash, musicians including Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Ronnie Dunn, Kacey Musgraves and Larry Gatlin, and actors Reese Witherspoon (who won an Oscar for portraying June in the film Walk the Line) and Robert Duvall, among others.
As the daughter of Maybelle Carter, who in 1927 formed The Carter Family along with Sara and A.P. Carter, June Carter Cash grew up in show business, teaming with her sisters Anita and Helen, along with Maybelle, to form Mother Maybelle and The Carter Sisters. They would help launch the career of guitarist-producer Chet Atkins, and were offered a job on the Grand Ole Opry in 1950.
JUNE showcases many of those early performances, alongside artists including Roy Acuff, where Carter Cash’s rural comedy bits, quick wit, and gregarious stage presence were prominent.
“She would do these crazy things on stage, just swing from the curtain, something like that,” Carlene Carter tells Billboard. “Things that Garth [Brooks] did later, June was doing them, and she could always make a joke out of it.”
“She had so many notebooks of jokes and skits,” Vaurio tells Billboard of the thought and work that Carter Cash put in to making those comedic skits seem spontaneous. “She was writing all the time. There was one notebook I read of hers, where it was right before she had John Carter and she’s writing songs and poems right up until the day he was born, and then again, right after.”
Through the Opry, Carter met Carl Smith, who at the time was one of the Opry’s biggest stars, notching three multi-week No. 1 Hot Country Singles hits and several top 10 hits. They were wed in 1952 and had one child, Carlene. The country music power couple divorced in 1956, sending shockwaves through the industry.
Carter Cash was determined to find her own way, decamping to Manhattan to study acting under Sandy Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of Theater. In the 1950s through 1970s, she appeared on Gunsmoke, The Adventures of Jim Bowie and Little House on the Prairie. She was in the 1958 film Country Music Holiday, 1986’s remake of Stagecoach, and multiple episodes of hit primetime Western drama Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. In the process, Carter became a forebear to later female country artists who blended work in music, film, and television — including Dolly Parton, Reba McEntire, Trisha Yearwood and Carrie Underwood.
“For most of my childhood, I had the bug that I wanted to do Broadway — because to me, that was all of it: You could sing, act, dance,” says Carter, who notched her own top five country hits in the 1990s, including “I Fell in Love” and “Every Little Thing.” “That was inspired by my mom, and I think she loved that aspect of it because there was a depth to her that a lot of people didn’t know. They just thought she was a funny, talented lady, but she really thought about what she was doing and she always wanted to do the best that she could.”
As a solo artist, Carter Cash anchored a segment of the Opry, and sometimes also wrote advertisements for Grand Ole Opry commercials to bring in extra money. She also opened shows for Elvis Presley — and it was Presley who would introduce her to the music of another charismatic, rockabilly artist: Johnny Cash. The film details how Presley would tune his guitar by singing a line from Cash’s 1955 hit, “Cry, Cry, Cry.”
“I would say this about my mother: No moss grew on the bottom of her feet. If she was going to do something, she committed to it,” Carter says.
The Carter Sisters joined Johnny Cash’s roadshow in 1961, sparking what would become one of music’s most well-known love stories. As a songwriter, Carter Cash wrote with Merle Kilgore what would become Johnny Cash’s passionate 1963 classic “Ring of Fire,” which spent seven weeks atop Billboard’s Hot Country Singles chart. Cash and Carter also co-wrote their follow-up No. 2 hit “The Matador.”
Carter and Cash wed in 1968 in Franklin, Kentucky, and she gave birth to John Carter in 1970. The film doesn’t flinch when addressing both the highs and hardships the Cash/Carter marriage navigated over the years — including the idyllic early days, Carter Cash’s support of her husband during Cash’s career slowdown in the 1980s, and the couple’s journey in navigating Cash’s drug addiction.
As music and marriage built the legacy of Johnny and June over the decades, and as June moved into the matriarchal role of The Carter Family, the film highlights how she was not only a bedrock for her family, but for the greater musical family around them in Nashville — offering a welcome respite for artists at their lakeside home in Hendersonville, Tennessee. Along the way, she championed the music of then-newcomers such as Kris Kristofferson and Larry Gatlin.
“We’d have beautiful dinners in the dining room with all her china. Then we would all huddle up in the music room, everybody picking and singing,” Carter recalls. “No matter who was there, everybody had to do something, whether you told a joke or played a song or did a dance. I got to sit there and hear Kris Kristofferson, James Taylor, Mickey Newbury — all these artists, just one after another. I’ve had to follow Roy Orbison and Paul McCartney, and that’s not an easy job.”
When Cash joined forces with Kristofferson, Nelson and Jennings in the 1980s with The Highwaymen, Carter Cash continued that support role, joining them for much of the ensuing decade on the road. But Carter Cash still harbored ambitions to be fully recognized as an artist in her own right.
To that end, Carter Cash reunited with fellow Meisner acting student Duvall, appearing in the 1997 film The Apostle. She also began revisiting her familial roots in Virginia, and with her 1999 album Press On, reclaimed her own story.
She bookended Press On with Carter Family songs but filled it with self-written songs drawn from her own life. Press On earned Carter Cash her first Grammy as a solo artist, for best traditional folk album, bringing full circle both Carter Cash’s solo ambitions and her familial legacy. In one key moment, JUNE shows Carter Cash standing alone on the Grand Ole Opry stage, celebrating the album’s release and basking in the audience’s applause—this time, applause meant solely for her.
Carter Cash died on May 15, 2003, at age 73. Her final album, Wildwood Flower, released posthumously that same year, earning Grammys for best traditional folk album and best female country vocal performance for her solo rendition of The Carter Family classic, “Keep on the Sunny Side.”
And yet, with all of Carter Cash’s accolades and roles as both trailblazer and flamekeeper of country music, she has yet to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. (When The Carter Family was inducted into the Hall in 1970, the accolade included only Maybelle Carter, Sara Carter and Sara’s husband A.P. Carter.)
“I think a big motivator for that was that they felt that she just hasn’t had her recognition,” Vaurio says of making JUNE. “I think what lit a fire under all of us is that she’s not in the Country Music Hall of Fame, which we all feel is a grave injustice.”
Overall, Carter says she hopes fans see the broader spectrum of her mother’s artistry after viewing the doc.
“I hope they take away inspiration to be curious,” Carter says. “My mom was curious and had a love affair with creativity. I think that was a wonderful gift that she got from God.”
Powered by Billboard.