If you do a little digging, you will find that country music history has a lot of scandal.
One of the lesser-known stories comes in the career of Carl Smith.
Carl was a renowned country musician in the 1950s, becoming popular on the heels of tracks such as “Let’s Live a Little” and “Let Old Mother Nature Have Her Way,” his aspiring music career was ignited by listening to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio. Carl’s band included a steel guitarist with a western-style swing to his sound, which credited Carl Smith as being one of the early western country musicians.
Looking back on history, Carl Smith is doubly well-known for marrying June Carter. June was, of her own right, a country musician as well, and the two wed in 1952 and shared a daughter together. This is where Carl Smith and Johnny Cash’s timelines begin to collide.
In July of 1956, Johnny Cash made his debut on the Ryman floor for his Grand Ole Opry induction. He was not a typical country singer and many questioned if he was the right fit, however, the night of his induction also included a chance meeting with his future wife, the same June Carter.
So the legend goes, Johnny spotted June early that night and told her he would marry her someday. However, they were both already married, so the fate-ending between the two had to wait almost a dozen years, but it is remembered as the most iconic country romance of all time.
Johnny even credited the song “Ring Of Fire” as the story of their romantic connection:
“The taste of love is sweet,
When hearts like ours meet,
I fell for you like a child,
Oh, but the fire went wild”
But what really happened to the marriage of Carl Smith and June Carter is mysterious at best. An article clipping from a 1956 issue of The Tennessean stated “abandonment” as the grievance.
A clip from June Carter’s lawyer read:
“During the early part of 1953 [Smith] seemed to lose interest and without any explanation whatever, he stayed away from [her] and their home for two days and nights… when confronted […] Smith not only refused to offer any explanation but stated that it was no concern of hers…”
Even though the comments from the couple seem contentious, all the newspapers labeled the divorce as a mutual agreement. Even The Tennessean denoted their article with the title, “Nobody Is Mad, Says He.”
It’s a very interesting tale, to say the least. And shortly after the divorce, Carl Smith did the least platonic thing of all and relinquished his membership at the Grand Ole Opry, where he was then a staple performer.
In the 1960s, compared to now, Opry membership meant performing in approximately 30 shows a year compared to the 12 or so typical for today; even today the membership wording includes “performing regularly,” granting flexibility to members with other roles and responsibilities. But in the earlier years, many country stars were turning down tours and opportunities to keep up their Opry memberships.
Stepping out of the main country music limelight of this era was a big move for Carl Smith, and an intriguing one considering the proximity performing on the Opry would have lent to then ex-wife, June. But Carl continued in the industry. He held a number one hit on the charts every year between 1951 and 1973, and although he later retired to become a horse breeder, he was a natural choice for induction to the Hall of Fame for his early star power in the industry.
Controversy in the 1950s was short on social media, paparazzi, and tabloid stories, but Carl and June’s ending is everything country songs are made of.
Here is one rare footage of what would have been one of Carl’s last performances on the Opry.
Oddly enough, he never reinstated his membership throughout his career. Even more odd, the song, “You Are The One,” is one all about meeting the love of his life and sticking it out through hard times:
You are the one
You’re the one in my heart
You’re my darling
My last greatest thrill
Oh you’re the one in my heart
And I know that I love you and I always will
This song was released the same year as Carl’s divorce from June Carter.