Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash were two strong-willed artists who shared a love story that was the stuff of myth. The Oscar-winning 2005 biopic Walk the Line, illustrated that history for mainstream audiences. And while the film, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, is certainly entertaining there is so much more to learn about the turbulent, honky-tonk romance which mesmerized a generation of country fans.
Johnny Cash's Early Life
On February 26, 1932 Johnny Cash was born J.R. Cash in Cleveland County, Arkansas. As the middle child of seven in a poor farming family, J.R. was closest to his older brother Jack. Sadly, Jack was killed in gruesome table saw accident when J.R. was just 12 years old. Walk the Line portrays this horrific tragedy in visceral, disturbing detail and emphasizes the cold reaction of the Cash father, Ray. Instead of comforting his living son, Ray picks on J.R. relentlessly and blames him for Jack's death.
Was Ray Cash really as mean as Walk the Line might have you believe? Johnny Cash himself didn't often speak publicly about his relationship with his father. But in a talk with the Academy of American Achievement in 1993, he said, "I don't ever remember a really cross, unkind word from my father. He was a good, strong man who provided for his family. That was his sole purpose in life when I was growing up." But that characterization contradicts a statement by Johnny's daughter, Kathy, in Michael Streissguth's Johnny Cash: The Biography: "Grandpa always kind of blamed Dad for Jack's death. And Dad had this, just real sad guilt thing about him his whole life."
It's generally recognized that this early traumatic event shaped the young Cash's outlook on the world and led him toward creative endeavors. It was around that time that Cash began to play the guitar and write original songs. He found influence on the radio, through which he heard gospel music and even Irish traditional folk. Cash was also inspired by his mother, Carrie, who loved music and played herself; the whole family enjoyed singing hymns together. Of course, Cash's voice had not yet transitioned to the gravelly bass-baritone that would made him a star.
As soon as he graduated high school in 1950, Cash enlisted in the Korean War and was stationed in Germany. While overseas, Cash founded a band called The Barbarians and kept up a long-distance relationship with his then-girlfriend, Vivian Liberto. Liberto and Cash had met at a roller rink only weeks before he was shipped out. They maintained contact through writing copious love letters and married when he returned in 1954. The couple then moved to Memphis to start their family, and for Cash to start his musical career. In Memphis, Cash met the guitarists Luther Perkins and Marshall Grant who formed Cash's backing band The Tennessee Two. (Later, with Bob Wootton, the Tennessee Three.) When their band scored a meeting with Sun Records producer Sam Phillips (who claims credit for Cash's nickname "Johnny") Cash wowed him with his original "Hey Porter" -- not the more well-known "Folsom Prison Blues," as Walk the Line suggests.
After meeting Sam Phillips, Cash's career took off. Within a year, Cash released "I Walk the Line" and made his Grand Ole Opry debut. In Walk the Line, it's June Carter who first employs the now-iconic phrase to tease Cash. But in reality, the song was already a hit by the time that she met Cash backstage at Nashville's premier venue in 1956.
June Carter was already an established country singer-songwriter when she met the Man in Black at the Grand Ole Opry. Her 1953 solo "Jukebox Blues" was a popular country music tune. But the early success in her life came as no surprise. June Carter, born Valerie June Carter, was raised in Virginia by a whole family of musicians: a folk band literally called the Carter Family. There was never any question that little June would follow in their footsteps. She was performing alongside her uncle, aunt, and mother Maybelle Carter by the time she was only ten years old. Before long, June and her sisters had their own act and traveling the country with Maybelle and her siblings, Helen and Anita, as the Carter Sisters. They performed live, on the radio, and of course, at the Grand Ole Opry.
When performing with the talented Carter Sisters, June had to work harder to get noticed. But she knew how to work a crowd. June started imbuing her performances with comedy, unafraid to be the butt of a joke. (Elia Kazan, after seeing her Opry show, encouraged June to pursue acting. She even studied alongside James Dean with famed acting coach Lee Strasburg, a pioneer of method acting.) Her clownish routines extended into physical comedy, and her recurring "Aunt Polly" character was a huge hit with audiences. This playful trait would eventually win over Johnny Cash. In the famous meet cute from Walk the Line, Reese Witherspoon captures June's vivacious yet casual energy. Even while tangled up in Cash's guitar strap, she continues an easygoing onstage banter which engages the crowd. In real life, disappointingly, there is no evidence that June ever did get stuck in a guitar strap. June herself has said she remembers almost nothing about that first encounter with Cash "except his eyes."
Carter wed fellow musician Carl Smith in 1952 and had her first child with him, a girl named Carlene. Following Carlene's birth, she toured with Elvis Presley as a backup singer. It was Elvis Presley, who was well acquainted with Cash, that first told Carter about the up-and-coming singer. In the liner notes for Love, God, Murder, Carter recalls Elvis Presley saying: "Cash don't have to move a muscle, he just sings and stands there... Oh you'll know Cash. The whole world will know Johnny Cash."
Johnny & June: A Country Love Story
Johnny Cash was still married to Vivian Liberto when he met June Carter and by that point, the couple had four daughters. (Carter was still married too, although she and her husband would divorce just a year later.) But throughout the late 1950's, Cash and Carter were brought together again and again through various concerts. By the early 1960s, Carter was touring with Cash to sing accompaniment; by then, Carter was remarried to a police officer named Edwin Nix. As depicted in Walk the Line, she continuously rebuffed Cash's advances during that time. Although Liberto's 2007 memoir, I Walked the Line: My Life with Johnny, seriously challenges the narrative that Johnny Cash was the aggressor. "'Vivian, he will be mine,'" Liberto writes, supposedly quoting a hostile interaction with Carter. Yikes. You be the judge.
Aside from allegedly pursuing Carter, Cash cheated on his first wife regularly while on tour. He also started using drugs. And as Cash became addicted to barbiturates, alcohol, and amphetamines, his marriage crumbled. In Walk the Line, Ginnifer Goodwin portrays Liberto as a shrill and needy woman who cannot understand the unconventional soul of an artist. She is constantly guilting Cash to give up the touring lifestyle -- appearing as a direct opposite of the effervescent Carter who managed to balance having children with her demanding career. One of Cash and Liberto's daughters, Kathy, hated that interpretation. "My mom was basically a nonentity in the entire film except for the mad little psycho who hated his career," Kathy Cash complained to news outlets in 2005. "She loved his career and was proud of him until he started taking drugs and stopped coming home." Rosanne Cash, the eldest daughter, also agreed that household tensions were primarily driven by their father's habit for getting high.
That drug abuse would lead Cash to seven arrests, including an infamous takedown at the El Paso airport which was depicted quite accurately in Walk the Line. Cash had been smuggling over 1,000 amphetamine tablets in his guitar case while returning from Mexico. However, Cash never did collapse on stage like the sweaty, slurring Joaquin Phoenix does in Walk the Line. It was while watching Johnny suffer from addiction, that Carter wrote "Ring of Fire." Speaking to Rolling Stone in 2000, she said:
"It was not a convenient time for me to fall in love with him... One morning, about four o'clock, I was driving my car just about as fast as I could... I was miserable, and it all came to me: 'I'm falling in love with somebody I have no right to fall in love with'... I thought, 'I can't fall in love with this man, but it's just like a ring of fire.'"
In 1966, Cash and Liberto officially divorced and before long, he was dating Carter. Cash claims that he quit pills the day June finally reciprocated his feelings. And whether or not that's exactly true, it's certain that Carter immeasurably helped him reach sobriety. In 1967, the pair recorded and released their own version of "Jackson," which peaked at #2 on the Billboard charts. Enjoying commercial success at the start of this new relationship was nearly perfect. But now that they were finally together, getting Carter to accept his marriage proposal became an entirely new effort for Cash. He proposed several times before eventually popping the question live, onstage, in front of 7,000 people in London, Ontario.
The moment came just after the couple completed their "Jackson" duet. Suddenly Cash was going off-script in the mic and turning to face Carter. "Will you marry me?" he asked, and refused to continue performing without an answer. With the pressure of high production value and an enraptured crowd, she agreed. Walk the Line exposes the tension of that moment interestingly, lingering on Reese Witherspoon's hesitant expressions. However, photos from that night reveal a delighted June Carter, kissing and hanging on her new fiancé. My Father and The Man in Black, a documentary by Jonathon Hollif (Hollif's father Saul was Cash's manager), features a clip in which June calls the proposal "beautiful" but teases Johnny still: "I wish he would have gotten down on his knees!"
Till Death Did Them Part
So, June Carter became June Carter Cash. And in 1970, she gave birth to John Carter Cash, the only child she and Johnny would have together, and the only son for both of them. The boy was raised in a blended family, with seven children in all -- just like his father back on that Arkansas farm.
The Cashes continued performing together throughout their marriage, often on television, and even helmed their own variety show: The Johnny Cash Show. In their later years, the couple spent the bulk of their time at the lakefront Cash mansion in Hendersonville, Tennessee. This location features prominently in the 2003 music video for "Hurt," Johnny Cash's cover of the Nine Inch Nails' achingly dark rock song. During filming, his health was failing. In the video, he reflects on mortality and examines a legacy that tracing back to his boyhood roots and up through the decades: home movies, film appearances, countless Grammy and other record awards, and finally, a faded photograph from his wedding day in which Cash stands so proudly beside his bride. In two brief frames of "Hurt," June appears too, standing by Johnny's side solemnly, with her hand on his shoulder. She died three months later, at the age of 73 years old. And in the fourth months following her death, at her behest, Johnny Cash recorded sixty new songs before passing on as well. He was 71.