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A love like Johnny and June is all anyone really wants, isn’t it?
June Carter may be best remembered as the wife of Johnny Cash, but long before the two of them met and fell in love at the Grand Ole Opry, June was a renowned artist in her own right, both as part of the The Carter Family and a solo act. Her career’s work earned her 5 Grammys and cemented her name as one of the most important female artists in the genre’s history.
Of course, there’s no denying the impact she had as the love of Johnny Cash’s life. You can read about how he met her in 1956 while making his Grand Ole Opry debut, but stories of how she quite literally saved his life from drug and alcohol abuse and brought out the romantic in himare staples in country music folk lore.
But what is not too commonly known is that she wasn’t just a muse for some of Johnny’s best songs; she was sometimes the writer.
Although the two met in 1956, Johnny was still married to his first wife Vivian and June was married to fellow country singer Carl Smith, so while their intense feelings sparked back stage at the Opry that night, both had a long road to walk before they would end up together. June divorced Carl in 1956 but then married Edwin Nix in 1957. Johnny stayed married to Vivian until 1966, when she reportedly grew tired of his touring schedule and substance abuse.
He had been playing shows with The Carter Family for years at this point, so when June divorced her second husband that same year, they finally were able to fully fall for each other and the rest, as they say, is history.
While she was still married to Edwin Nix, a feeling deep inside told her that fate would one day bring her and Johnny together, and this spilled out into a song she wrote in 1960. She spoke of this in the documentary The Winding Stream.
“I realized that oh my Lord, I think I’m falling in love with Johnny Cash, and this is the most painful thing I’ve ever gone through in my life.
It is like I’m in a ring of fire, and I’m never coming out. I’m going down, down to the bottom of this thing. It’s going to kill me, because I would never have the nerve to tell him, nor do I want to tell him, nor do I want anybody to even know I’ve got these feelings.”
As you may have guessed, this now iconic song was “Ring Of Fire,” which Johnny recorded as the title track for his 1963 album.
Written by June Carter Cash and Merle Kilgore, it was originally recorded as “(Love’s) Ring of Fire” by June’s sister, Anita Carter, on her 1963 album, Folk Songs Old and New, and then recorded by Johnny shortly thereafter. It’s worth noting that this story is disputed by Johnny’s first wife Vivian. According to her, Johnny actually wrote the song but decided to give June a writing credit because she needed money.
She wrote in her memoir:
“To this day, it confounds me to hear the elaborate details June told of writing that song for Johnny. She didn’t write that song any more than I did.
The truth is, Johnny wrote that song, while pilled up and drunk, about a certain private female body part. All those years of her claiming she wrote it herself, and she probably never knew what the song was really about.”
Vivian’s side of the story hasn’t been backed up by anyone else, and she certainly has reason to want to discredit the woman she blames for ruining her marriage, but I’d be remise not to include that tidbit.
Regardless, it’s certainly one of Cash’s biggest hits, and one of the greatest country music songs of all time.