When Carlene Carter was just starting her music career, her mom, June Carter Cash, liked to surprise her at her performances. “I was playing at rock clubs, and my mom would show up with one of her girlfriends wearing different-colored wigs. I would look down and there’d be June dancing up front and going, ‘Whoo, baby!’”
June, a five-time Grammy Award winner, had a way of making the most out of every moment. She began performing professionally with her family at 10 and achieved success as a singer, songwriter, actress and author. “She lived a life that is a hero’s journey,” says Kristen Vaurio, director of June, a new documentary streaming on Paramount+. “Her whole life was such an amazing epic story.”
Her music career has been rightfully celebrated, but other parts of June’s multifaceted life, like her time studying acting, are less well-known. “Back then, women didn’t take their little girls, get a divorce, and go to New York and become friends with Marlon Brando and James Dean,” Carlene says of her mother’s time studying at the famed Neighborhood Playhouse. “She called them her rock and roll years. I believe she made it easier for other women down the line to follow those paths.”
Carlene remembers going on tour with her mom, driving between gigs by car. “I learned to sleep in any position,” she says. “Back then, we didn’t have tour buses. It was nothing to get in the car and drive any amount of miles to play one hour.”
For a time in the mid-’50s, June was managed by Colonel Tom Parker and toured with Elvis Presley. “I wished she would have told me if she slept with Elvis or not!” says Carlene, “but she never did.”
Elvis would be the first to tell June about rising star Johnny Cash, who would become her third husband and inspire “Ring of Fire” — the hit song she cowrote. If June, who was the bigger star when they met, ever felt overshadowed by Johnny’s rise, she never expressed it. “It would be impossible for her not to have been overshadowed to some degree because he was one of the most charismatic men on Earth,” says Carlene.
June welcomed any opportunity to sing with her husband, but she particularly enjoyed performing with her sisters and children. “She used to say there’s nothing like singing with your family,” says Carlene. “There’s a certain sound, the timbre of our voices together, that when a family sings together, it really works.”
June and Johnny had their troubles, as in any marriage, but Carlene remembers their “really well-rounded life” best. “They spent most of their time together. They would read or write or be at the studio,” she recalls. “June could slip away to the Pottery Barn, where she liked to buy big pots to plant with flowers. I feel lucky that I learned as much as I did from them because I know a lot of other artists’ kids don’t know how to can beans.”
Beyond the practical things, June taught her family by example how to embrace life fully. Until the end of her life in 2003, she never stopped being curious and never gave up hope. “She taught us to press on,” says Carlene. “Things can get very hard, and they can get very dark, but you just kind of put one foot in front of the other. She never regretted anything.