June Carter Cash's storied career gets the documentary treatment in Paramount+'s June
With insight from her children and friends like Emmylou Harris, the new Paramount+ documentary June (now streaming) unpacks the late musician’s storied career, from her early days singing with her sisters to her legendary romance with Cash — and all of the ups and downs in between.
A Virginia native, June cut her teeth as a member of The Carter Family, and eventually found fame performing at the Grand Ole Opry. She was twice married before she met the Man in Black, and the two tied the knot in 1968, remaining married until June’s death in 2003. Two years later, the couple's story hit the silver screen in the film Walk the Line, where June was played by Reese Witherspoon (who also appears in the doc).
An accomplished singer, actress and songwriter, June wrote her husband’s hit “Ring of Fire,” and in 1999, won a Grammy Award for her album Press On.
Below, the most revelatory moments from the film.
June had a difficult and brief first marriage to Carl Smith
Though author and music historian Robert K. Oermann calls June’s first marriage to Carl Smith a “storybook romance” of the Grand Ole Opry (where the two would perform together), it didn’t have a happy ending.
After four years of marriage and the birth of daughter Carlene, June and Carl divorced, with June saying in a voiceover that era was “a difficult time in my life and I wasn’t very happy.”
In the documentary, June’s son John Carter Cash says Carl, who died in 2010, “had a different vision of what marriage was” than June did.
“He wanted her to stay home and be more of a mom,” Carlene says in the film. “She could still go play the Opry, but he didn’t think that she could be out on the road. And Mom always said that she was covered up with ambition. That she was absolutely filled with ambition and she had all these things she wanted to do. I think she just wanted to be a superstar.”
In the mid-1950s, a woman getting a divorce in conservative Nashville was something of a scandal — but according to Carlene, June felt strongly about living life on her own terms.
“She didn’t think that anybody was ever gonna love her who at the same time would let her just do what she wanted to do because she just couldn’t give it up,” she says in the documentary. “Later on in his life, right before he passed away, I said, ‘So what happened with you and mom? Mom always says she loved you so deeply and was so heartbroken.’ And Daddy said, ‘Your mama never loved me…. She loved the idea of me.’”
June soon found work with Elvis Presley — and the two formed a close friendship
While opening for Elvis Presley on tour, June and the King became fast friends — and potentially more.
“Many times I said, ‘Mama, come on. Tell me. You slept with Elvis, right?’” says Carlene. “She would giggle and she would blush a little but she said, ‘No, Elvis was just a nice young man when I knew him.’
According to June, Presley knew the singer was suffering from some heartbreak after her divorce, and would fly out to New York City to spend time with her, often pushing baby Carlene around Central Park in a stroller.
John Carter, meanwhile, says June “would always get a twinkle in her eye” when talking about the “Jailhouse Rock” singer, and reveals that Presley once drew a mustache on sheet music that featured Carl Smith, signing the page “Painting by Presley.”
Her first encounter with Johnny Cash was backstage at the Grand Ole Opry in 1956
In archival footage, June recalls meeting her future husband for the first time while performing at the Grand Ole Opry on a Saturday night.
She says she was well aware of who Cash was, as Presley was a big fan of the rising star, and would often play his music, the song “Cry, Cry, Cry” in particular.
“[Presley] taught me a lot about Johnny Cash, and I kept saying, ‘If I ever meet this fellow I wanna see what he looks like,’” June says. “Well, he did walk up to me backstage and just said [‘Hello, I’m Johnny Cash’], and I said, ‘Well I’m June Carter.’ And he said, ‘Well, I know. I know who you are.’”
Cash, meanwhile, recounts his own version of their first meeting in a voiceover, and reflects on seeing her onstage at the Opry in 1950 and hoping to get her autograph.
Falling in love with Johnny was not on June’s agenda
Before long, June had joined Johnny’s band, and the two went on tour together. At the time, she was married to Rip Nix, with whom she shared daughter Rosie, and Johnny was married to wife Vivian, with whom he had daughters Rosanne, Kathy, Cindy and Tara.
To add an extra layer to their difficult situation, Johnny was also in the grips of addiction.
“I didn’t want to fall in love with him, didn’t mean to fall in love with him. Was scared to death of him,” June says. “So I did a lot of just running and trying to sit in the corner by myself, because I wouldn’t even admit it to myself for a long time. I didn’t want to hurt anybody.”
In the documentary, friend and fellow country star Emmylou Harris reflects on June’s dilemma, noting she was a “good Christian girl” in conflict with her feelings.
“You didn’t go to bed with somebody unless you were married. And yet she was deeply, deeply, fiercely in love with John,” says Harris. “So there was a real conflict going on there… She was following her heart, having the courage, when back then I’m sure people thought she was a whore.”
Once June officially divorced Nix, she kept it quiet from Johnny and the band for three or so months, as she was “very ashamed.”
Johnny’s daughters were less than thrilled to have a new family at first
After June and Johnny tied the knot in 1968, they became a blended family. And while Carlene and Rosie were “really excited about having some sisters” in Johnny’s daughters, the Cash girls felt differently.
“I remember at 12 when that happened, it broke my mother’s heart,” says Roseanne. “In some ways I think it broke my dad’s heart. It was giving up on a certain idea of his life. I think there’s times in your life when you know this is the fork you’re gonna take and that you have you take and it doesn’t mean there’s not grief for what you lose.”
Eventually, the girls came around, and in 1970, Johnny and June welcomed son John Carter into the fold.
Their love story wasn’t without its bumps in the road
Though June and Johnny were madly in love, they faced marital strife as they toured together, with Rosanne explaining that the “rigors of the road,” as well as the constant glare from the public, took a toll.
By 1980, Johnny’s addictions had become a problem once more, with John Carter saying in the documentary that his parents’ relationship “suffered greatly.”
“They were fighting every day. They were very angry with each other, mostly my mom angry with my father,” he says.
Family friend Kate Edelman Johnson recalls a lunch with June in which she said Johnny needed to get “straightened out” or she’d leave him, even though she didn't want to.
Eventually, after an incident in which an “incoherent” Johnny stopped breathing one night, his loved ones staged an intervention, and the “Ring of Fire” singer successfully sought treatment at the Betty Ford Center.
“Maybe a lot of times they did buy into their own myth. For better or for worse!” says Rosanne. “Maybe that kept them going at a time when they could’ve broken up. It’s like, well, we have this thing together that’s bigger than us.”
June loved acting in The Apostle.
In 1997, June starred opposite Robert Duvall in the movie The Apostle, a role she cherished.
“She was so excited to be in that film with him,” says Carlene. “She just adored Robert Duvall and had become good friends with him.”
In his own interview, Duvall praises June’s sense of humor and strong will.
Johnny was devastated by June’s death
When June died of complications from heart surgery in May 2003, her husband of 35 years was unmoored.
Duvall recalls him being “so sad” at his wife’s funeral, while Rosanne says her dad “really struggled” with the death of his wife.
“I mean, all of us children were holding our breaths like, ‘He’s not gonna last long without her,’” says Rosanne. “And he didn’t. He lasted four months.”
Johnny died of complications from diabetes in September 2003.
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