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Shining alone -- again

A posthumous CD from June Carter Cash and a Jessi Colter reissue shift the focus off the men in their lives, Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings.

September 07, 2003|Robert Hilburn | Times Staff Writer

Rosanne CASH tells a sweet, revealing story about her stepmother, June Carter Cash, in the liner notes of the latter's warm, posthumous "Wildwood Flower" album, which will be released Tuesday.

It seems the pair was at home a few years ago when the living room phone rang. June answered it and became so engrossed in conversation that Rosanne finally went into the kitchen.

"I just had the nicest conversation," June said after rejoining Rosanne half an hour later. She went on to explain that the woman on the line had been talking about her children and how she had just lost her father.

When Rosanne asked who it was, June replied, "Why, honey, it was a wrong number."

Anyone who spent time with June Carter Cash will recognize the truth in the story. The wife of Johnny Cash and the descendant of country music's pioneering Carter Family treated everyone she met as a newfound friend.

That same, disarming spirit radiated through her solo album "Press On," which won a Grammy in 2000 for best traditional folk collection, and returns in "Wildwood Flower," completed just weeks before she died May 15 at age 73 after complications from open-heart surgery.

Together, the albums serve as a life's summation, a reminder of the time when the young June Carter had a promising singing and acting career before she gave it up to become Mrs. Johnny Cash. The albums are also a loving nod to the couple's life together.

There was never a hint that Cash regretted a minute of her decision to put her husband and family first, nor that she even thought of it as a sacrifice. Theirs was one of the great love stories.

Remarkably, another new release, this one a retrospective, touches on a similar tale of a promising performer at least partly setting aside her career for the sake of a Country Music Hall of Fame member.

That's the story of Jessi Colter and the late Waylon Jennings.

The stories also overlap because Johnny Cash and Jennings had a long friendship. They even roomed together in Nashville during their wild 'n' rowdy days in the 1960s, supplying the town with enough colorful stories to fill a thousand songs.

One of the most repeated told how the singers used to get so high on pills that they would kick down the apartment door just as often as unlock it because they'd misplaced their keys. Both Cash and Jennings have credited their wives with helping save their lives by encouraging them to chase away various demons.

"She's what made me finally quit [drugs]," Jennings once said about Colter. "I looked at her face one day, and I could see what I was doing to her, the pain I was causing."

Said Cash last fall, "I could never have made it through without June."

A somebody indeed

"Press On" and "Wildwood Flower" came about only because Johnny Cash retired from the road because of poor health in the late '90s, giving his wife time to resume her own solo career after years of touring and occasionally recording with him.

In "I Used to Be Somebody," a song on "Press On," she even reminded everyone playfully that she did have a life before Johnny Cash. It was, in fact, quite a colorful life.

Her mother, Maybelle, was a founding member of the Carter Family, the trio whose recordings and radio shows in the 1930s helped lay the foundation of commercial country music.

June not only sang with her sisters and mother for years but toured with Elvis Presley and studied acting in New York with Lee Strasberg and Elia Kazan. Among her friends, she notes In "I Used to Be Somebody," were Presley and James Dean. And, with Merle Kilgore, she wrote "Ring of Fire," the lively Johnny Cash hit. She sings it on the CD.

The heart of the new album, released by Dualtone Records, is a series of songs, including "Keep on the Sunny Side" and "Wildwood Flower," that were identified with the Carter Family. It's a heartwarming work that faces death (the old A.P. Carter tune "Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone") but also contains moments of humor, devotion and celebration.

John Carter Cash, the couple's son, produced "Wildwood Flower," and he said in a phone interview that there was a sense during the recording sessions that his mother knew that her "life was nearing its completion on this Earth." Johnny Cash calls it his wife's "crowning achievement" on record, an album he cherishes as much as his own.

Jessi Colter, who was married briefly to rock guitar hero Duane Eddy, grew up in Phoenix and had some early success in country music as a songwriter, with tunes that were recorded by Don Gibson and Nancy Sinatra.

After her 1969 marriage to Jennings, an artist with a charisma and vocal authority similar to Cash's, she recorded an album for RCA and had a few duet hits with her husband.

Colter's reintroduction

Though she didn't abandon her career, most of her energy went into keeping Jennings on track until 1975, when her recording of "I'm Not Lisa" was a Top 10 pop and country hit. Like so many of the songs she wrote during the period, it was about her relationship with Jennings.

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