The Wildwood Flower Says Goodbye
June Carter Cash (1929-2003)
It’s been more than a month since his mother passed away, but John Carter Cash is still at a loss for words over the massive outpouring of grief and adoration from people whose lives were touched by June Carter Cash. After all, how do you sum up the life of someone who was not only the surviving matriarch of your family but of country music as well? “It was amazing,” he says of the tributes and condolences. “Lots of people just came around and lifted us up…and it was greatly needed. It was a blessing to have that support.”
Discussing his role as producer on his mother’s last—and some would argue best—album comes a bit easier to John, the only child of June Carter and Johnny Cash. “Oh, it was unforgettable,” John says laughing, his voice bearing little resemblance to the commanding growl of his father. “You know, she was an artist that had a vision and direction and knew what she was doing. The full spectrum of creativity and performance were right there in her spirit; she was a comedienne and a performer and a balladeer; it was easy to work with her, it really was—just capturing and clarifying everything that she was.”
While few doubted the legitimacy and extent of June’s gifts, the daughter of Mother Maybelle Carter arguably hadn’t left behind a definitive recorded statement until Wildwood Flower, her musical farewell. For her son, the project largely necessitated he simply stand back and document what his mother did naturally. “They just popped whenever they chose to,” he says of his role in capturing the breadth of her talents. “It wasn’t so much that they were brought about as you just had to be there when it happened. We chose the songs, put her in a room with the players and let her do her thing. And it was pretty amazing working up there at the house where my grandmother and grandfather lived in the ’30s and ’40s. The original Carter Family recorded there, so it was a rare opportunity to record her and have that musical heritage come full circle. That track, “Anchored in Love,” is about my favorite thing on that record because it’s about as pure Carter Family as you can get, with the surviving second generation of the Carter Family all together. It was really a blessing to have them all there.”
In her life, rather than strive for top billing as an artist, June made being a wife and mother her first priority. Her final recording reflects this, as it is a an appropriately homespun affair. By the time of Wildwood Flower’s release, she’d earned the right to simply slap her name on the cover of an album and indulge in a tour-de-force vanity project, but such desires held little appeal for June. A celebration, not only of her incomparable musical heritage, but of the life she shared with her loved ones, the album is populated by far-flung family members such as first cousins Joe and Janette, former son-in-law Marty Stuart, granddaughter Tiffany Anastasia Lowe, and friends Norman and Nancy Blake.
“It was very important to her,” John says of the family contributions. “She always believed in family. She never wanted to stop doing that. She was always part of the family as opposed to being an artist or performer first. She was always an artist in her own right, I mean, she was always working on her art. It was very important to her, because it was part of who she was.”
Where Wildwood Flower might have been viewed as the original Carter Family’s final chapter, June’s familial focus became an extension of the family’s legacy, uniting surviving generations in a singular expression. This emphasis on family was sure to include June’s legendary husband, but what’s particularly startling about Cash’s contribution to the album is that an American icon with his magnetism could have such a pronounced presence while June still firmly maintains conceptual center stage. The charming chemistry that brought the duo chart success in the late 1960s is readily evident on what would become its final duets—the playful romp through “Temptation,” and the ominous tale of frontier life in “Road to Kaintuck.”
As a woman who had, somewhat unfairly, spent much of her life defined by her relation to other people—first the daughter of Maybelle Carter, next the wife of Johnny Cash—she seemed to have emerged from the experience gracefully unaffected. “That’s who she wanted to be, to be a mother and the wife of Johnny Cash,” says John of his mother’s unfailing commitment to his father. “I mean, they were really, really close when she passed. That was part of who she was. When she got with my father and they were married in ’68, they became one. They were in love, and that comes out in the record, too—in songs like “Road to Kaintuck,” which is like a trip down memory lane. With my mother and my father singing, it’s haunting. It’s a classic. And it’s coming full circle again.”
Recorded over sessions spanning the fall of 2002 and the spring of 2003, June’s musical sojourn indeed came full circle, drawing her back to the isolated house her parents shared. Tucked away in the Virginia mountains, it is where the vast catalogue of traditional folk songs—brought to light by her uncle A.P. Carter—has been preserved.
“It was like there was never any passage of time,” John recalls of the Wildwood Flower sessions. “The mountain was there like it was when A.P. and Sara were there. You could tell the spirits in that house were very supportive. The power of the music and the intimacy of the place is so inspiring for us, musically.” As such, with the songs of the original Carter Family so heavily represented on Wildwood Flower (accounting for eight of the 13 tracks), the project could easily have become overwhelmingly nostalgic or reverent. But the way tradition is respected without crossing over into dogmatic pandering underscores the sense of authenticity that runs deep through the plaintive arrangements, and though the years eroded some of the elasticity of June’s voice, it left her with grandmotherly nuances and an even more sagely presence.
“[Wildwood Flower] is a reminder of that heritage, and a reminder of the importance of purity in the music and where it all came from,” John continues, unafraid to tout his legacy. “And I think that’s what it will be—a reminder instead of a last statement. The power of the music is just undeniable. They’ll never stop singing those songs. Everywhere I go in the world, they play those songs.”
Standards like the elegant, string-laced “Storms Are On The Ocean,” the living-room choir rendition of “Keep on the Sunny Side,” the Spartan take on “Wildwood Flower,” and the more obscure, “Sinking In The Lonesome Sea,” are startling in their directness and resounding sense of finality.
“I think it sort of came together that way,” John says of the apparent sense of foreboding, not quite ready to ascribe the ominous tone to his mother’s intuition. “There are so many of those songs that have finality as a theme, there’s no doubt that if you pick some of the best Carter Family songs you’re bound to find a certain sense of finality in them. ‘Will You Miss Me?’ is on the record, and of course now it seems very foreboding or prophetic, but it’s just more representative of the nature of that musical heritage. Hopefully, if you pick some of the best songs, some of them are sad and forlorn, but I think we covered everything on the record. Laughing right up to the end, joyously, with ‘Temptation’ and some of the things that are very comic.”
For John, it was an experience similar to working on his mother’s 1999 album, Press On, his production debut. “She probably was a little bit more ill,” he says of working with her on the latest project, “but at the same time she never really lost that vigor and excitement. So as far as that goes, she could say, ‘Here I am, here’s what I do. Music, art, theater.’ I don’t know. It was unforgettable.”
To that extent, Wildwood Flower does not sound like the work of a woman whose condition was nearly as dire as it turned out. The performances resonate with the same vibrancy she lived her life with. “Her spirit would never slow down,” John says with some bemusement. “She was always active, whether she was making music or just having fun. I believe that in this instance she had the opportunity to do both, to play music and have a good time. You know, she wanted to make a statement about the history of the music, reminding people of where it all came from. So many of these great songs, everyone is aware of but might not know exactly where they came from—a lot of them are Carter Family songs.”
Ultimately, her attentive, multi-faceted approach is the album’s uniting thread. It became her statement, presenting the traits that had not only endeared June Carter Cash to her fans, but to her family and friends as well. With the inclusion of archival snippets recorded on radio in her youth as well as a few candidly amusing reminiscences, made even more poignant by her passing, you have a near definitive statement of June’s art. Even better, the sessions that produced her final album were captured on tape with the intention of being released as a documentary.
“We’ll be putting that together pretty soon,” says John. “We’re thrilled with it, to see the results. I’ve watched it over and over again, and it can be a little difficult. I watched all the reels of the footage, and I helped edit it and put it together. It can be a little hard to watch, but at the same time it still makes me laugh and makes me smile. It’s just who she was.”
While any son could be forgiven for taking an overly rosy view of his mother’s work, especially work that takes on sentimental value in light of her passing, it doesn’t take a Carter Family historian to realize Wildwood Flower is a special album. Perhaps most important is that June also knew just how good the album was. “We finished it before she passed, and she had heard the whole record and was thrilled,” John says. “She was so excited that she’d play it for her friends and get up and dance…She had a lot of fun with that record before she went away.”
Much like the creative rebirth her husband experienced with his American Recordings—a series of albums which highlighted an ability to reconnect with the essence of his art, candidly filtering his work through his persona—June Carter Cash has left us with an album that combines the traditional and the contemporary with the weight of an old soul’s reflection, refracting it all through the prism of her life and the wisdom of her experience.
“Every once in awhile people come back around to what is pure and what is true. And there are always people around who are doing it, who are still making that music. And I think that if the mainstream had the opportunity to hear this music, this is what they’d be wanting to hear. I do believe it’s not just a number to put in your collection—it’s what country music is,” John says, pausing to load his words with extra emphasis. “There are branches that have come off the tree that are just as good or respectable, but this is country music.”