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Simple sophistication
June Carter Cash’s Wildwood Flower

Country music lost its king and queen last year when Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash died, and the genre’s already poorer for their absence. Their music made little impact on the commercial mainstream for the past two decades, but they were always around, serving as the genre’s conscience, or maybe its soul, reminding in their songs, performances, and homespun humor that there was a time when country came from the heart, rather than a corporate assembly line.

Sure, there have always been people out to make a good buck in music, and June and Johnny were among them. After all, it is a business. But June and Johnny believed that quality and integrity could be part of that business. Maybe Brooks & Dunn and stick figures like Toby Keith do, too — but that would mean they’re as deaf as their songs are dumb.

June Carter Cash’s final recording, the recently released Wildwood Flower (Dualtone), was completed just a month before she died on May 15. Like Johnny Cash’s version of Nine Inch Nails’ "Hurt," it takes on a deeper resonance with her passing. The bulk of the album’s 13 songs are the musical reminiscences of an old woman revisiting her youth. Many of the numbers were written by A.P. Carter, patriarch of the Carter Family, the trio that also included June’s mother, Maybelle, and took the sound of the rural Southern hills to homes throughout America in the 1920s and ’30s. Others were written by Maybelle and June and her sisters. These are simple songs, like "Keep on the Sunny Side" and "Kneeling Drunkard’s Plea," and numbers drawn directly from English folk music, like "Sinking in the Lonesome Sea."

Their lyrics about eternal hope, heavenly reunions, and the power of undying love might seem maudlin or ironic from an artist to whom they came less naturally. That June means every word is underscored by the arrangements, purely acoustic and led by the great flat-picker Norman Blake’s guitar. These notions were part of June’s fabric, as her fans and the liner notes to this album — primarily the eulogy her stepdaughter Rosanne delivered at her funeral — attest.

June was both a simple country woman and a well-traveled sophisticate, and that rings in her voice on these tracks. It’s a balance that contributed to her greatness and runs through her finest songs like "Ring of Fire," which she co-authored three decades ago to reflect the attraction and fear she felt as she fell in love with Johnny, who made it one of his biggest hits.

That blend of bumpkin and citizen of the world is something June earned with time. The more recently released Live Recordings from the Louisiana Hayride (Scena) capture June during the period when she began to temper her innocence with experience. Its 15 tracks are culled from performances on that poor cousin to the Grand Ole Opry from 1960 to 1965. During those years she was primarily known as a comedienne, and repeatedly she tests the powers of her then-shaky voice — already a sinewy instrument, but unsure in its pitch and timbre.

The one thing that cuts through the years on every track is the goodness in her heart, whether she’s belting out A.P. Carter’s "Wildwood Flower" like a brassy filly along with the house band on her Hayride debut, or reeling off jokes and one-liners so corny crows must have been circling the stage. In 1960 she seemed more destined to follow in the steps of down-home comic Minnie Pearl than to uphold her legacy as part of country music’s literal first family. But by the time the disc ends she’s on stage with Johnny, right when that ring of fire was tightening, and upholding the Carter name with strength and confidence. And that’s what she did, right up to the last tune she recorded for Wildwood Flower.

Issue Date: January 2 - 8, 2004
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