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A Famous Voice Is Heard Again

June Carter Cash is stepping back into the spotlight with a new album.


HENDERSONVILLE, Tenn. — The last time June Carter Cash appeared in Los Angeles, she performed a single, unrecorded song during a 1996 concert by her husband, Johnny Cash, at the House of Blues. That song, "I Used to Be Somebody," which she wrote, is a poignant look back at her life, her career and the relationships and friendships she's enjoyed with various entertainment icons, most of whom have long since died.

As it turns out, that performance led to the 69-year-old singer's signing with an L.A.-based independent record company, Small Hairy Dog Records, a subsidiary of Risk Records. In other words, a song about how she would never again equal the glories of her past wound up earning her a chance to gain newfound stature and respect in the future.

"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 in this Nashville suburb.

"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."

The album, "Press On," was released in late April. Already, it's garnering the kind of attention that Carter Cash left behind when she retired from solo performances after marrying Cash in 1968.

The daughter of Mother Maybelle Carter, one of the founding members of the famed Carter Family trio, the singer was a major star of the Grand Ole Opry radio show in the 1950s, where her comic songs and colorful performance style made her a hot concert draw throughout the South. "I did used to be somebody," she says with a loud hoot of a laugh.

In the 1950s, Carter Cash spent a year opening concerts for Elvis Presley, then studied acting in New York with Lee Strasberg and Elia Kazan. Through the 1960s, she performed to urban folk-music audiences as a member of the Carter Sisters, which featured Mother Maybelle and June's sisters Anita and Helen Carter. She also occasionally toured solo with a trio that featured guitarist Norman Blake.

"I was always the comedian," Carter recalls. "I was the country cutup. That's what got Kazan's attention, the fact that I would do anything on stage for a laugh. He thought I was fearless and he saw this quality in me he thought would work well as a serious actor. Before that, though, I just wrote a lot of crazy, funny songs and skits. They were kind of corny, but that's what people liked."

But she gave that up when she married Cash. The Carter Sisters were regulars on the country star's network TV show in 1969 and 1970, and June regularly performed duets with him, such as their 1967 hit "Jackson." She released her only previous solo album, "Appalachian Pride," on Columbia Records in 1975. However, as she readily admits, her focus shifted from her career to her husband's once the two were married (the second time for both).

"Being Johnny Cash's wife was pretty much a full-time job back then," she says, smiling as she refers to her husband's notorious behavior in the '60s and '70s. "That was my life's work, and I wouldn't have wanted it any other way."

However, her new album indicates that she could have brought a passionate voice and spiritual weight to country music had she pursued recording with the same vigor she gave to mothering her extended family.

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

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 18 months, this grand lady of American folk music has presented an album of unpolished acoustic music that juxtaposes Carter Family standards, deeply felt mountain hymns and anecdotal originals that movingly reflect faith, betrayal and fame.

Her songs are like her opinions, bluntly personal, deeply moral, and featuring a specific and picturesque way of looking at life. Now that the album is out and receiving a favorable reception, she says she's thrilled that she had a chance to make it, and that she was allowed to record it simply and straightforwardly.

"It's an honest performance," she says. "The records I hear anymore are so slick. What we wanted was something real."


June Carter Cash, with Mark Collie and James Intveld, tonight at the Troubadour, 9081 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood, 8 p.m. $15. (310) 276-6168. Cash also will appear at the Virgin Megastore, 8000 W. Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, at 3 p.m. Saturday to sign CDs. (323) 650-8666.

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