Remembering The Queen
I have a clear memory of sitting on my grandmother’s lap when I was five-years-old and listening to her beloved tube radio in the darkened back bedroom of the shotgun duplex that she and my grandfather rented on the corner of 67th Street and Navigation Boulevard in the hardscrabble section of Houston, known as the East End. And I still associate the acrid smell of overheated power transformers and dust-caked electronics with the sound of the Carter Family performing live on radio station KXEG in Del Rio, Texas. Neither she nor I knew at the time that we were, in fact, listening to rebroadcasts of live transcripts recorded in San Antonio and aired on radio station XERA in Del Rio in the late thirties and early forties. (Johnny Cash often joked about XERA’s broadcast signal being so strong that he could listen to the Carter Family singing live on a barbed wire fence in Dyess Arkansas.) On my grandmother’s aproned lap, with the dry and beautiful sounds of A.P., Sara, Maybelle and the Carter girls filling the four corners of that tiny bedroom, I knew for the first time the feeling that I was loved.
The first time I heard the name June Carter was when she and her sisters, Helen and Anita were introduced during their segment of one of these broadcasts. At the time of the original transmission, she was nine-years-old, Helen and Anita perhaps twelve and seven. My memory of the sound they made didn’t so much change over the years as become more itself. June did a comedy routine, the gist of which I can’t remember, but the sound of her voice remains, as clear in my mind today as it was that night in 1955.
Since I wasn’t aware of the time lapse between the original airing and the broadcasts my grandmother and I were listening to, I assumed June was near to my age, and developed a heartfelt crush on this lovely creature whom I had never seen, yet swore someday to marry. (Ironically, Johnny Cash once told me that he too fell in love with his future wife, listening to her on the radio.) But not until I was ten did I learn that the love of my young life was a grown woman.
I first met that grown woman in Los Angeles, in 1978. My fascinating new girlfriend, Rosanne, introduced me to her father, Johnny Cash, and his wife June at the Beverly Hills Hotel. “This is Rodney Crowell,” Rosanne announced confidently. To say I was awestruck would greatly understate the moment. Being introduced to June Carter and Johnny Cash in the same breath was a paralyzing proposition. To whom do I extend my hand? Would it be John, whom I had admired since first hearing his voice come out of the dashboard radio belonging to my father’s borrowed, ’49 Ford? Or would it be June, whom I had loved since childhood?
It was June who broke the spell. Grabbing me in a Poor Valley, Virginia bear hug, she proclaimed, “I can already tell this one’s all right.” I was reeling from the warmth and of her spontaneous affection when she took a step back, placed her hands on both my shoulders, and further sized me up. “Why, I believe the next time I see you, you’ll be wearin’ silk shirts,” she said. “Get on in here and let’s eat something.”
The four of us dined on room service that night, John and June going well out of their way to make me feel welcome. It was a gift of generosity neither would ever retract. The next day I made arrangements with Rosanne to shop for silk shirts.
June Carter Cash collected people. Knowing I was numbered among the vagabonds and dignitaries she held close to her heart is one of my most prized accomplishments. Once you belonged among her Klediment’s—Junespeak for keepsakes— she never stopped reminding you of two things: Friendship is unconditional. Love is eternal.
There was something in the way June carried herself that—along with that fox, auburn hair—can only be described as regal. For the last decade of her life, I fondly addressed her as “The Queen”—and for good reason. She was born the daughter of Maybelle Carter, a founding member of the first gospel and mountain music ensemble ever recorded, was recognized the world over as an ambassador of American culture, and perhaps most importantly, logged 60-plus years as a working performer. If June didn’t possess the credentials to assume the uncommonly wizened, graceful and kind-hearted Minnie Pearl’s vacated throne, who did?
In later years, June was known to rattle and ramble on a bit, but never at the expense of another human being. A review of her comic legacy will show that her humor was based entirely on self-effacement. June possessed the kind of intelligence great comedians are born with—a self-awareness that counsels, make fun of your self, not others.
The second time I met June was at Harrah’s, Lake Tahoe, where Johnny Cash and the Carter Family were performing in the summer of 1978. I was wearing a silk shirt. “Nice,” June said, feeling the shirt’s material and pulling me aside to give pointers on how to handle “the Cash/Carter gauntlet.” “Now you know that John and I think you are good for Rosanne, and we accept you as our own, but nine out of ten people in this big ole entourage are going to think you’re just one more dog come a sniffin’ ’round the girls. It won’t hurt you to hold your own under that kind of scrutiny for a while. They’ll come to know what we already know. I know right where I need to put you until the rest of ‘em warm up.”
June escorted me to the blackjack tables where Mother Maybelle sat behind a stack of chips the size of a small city. “This one needs to sit beside you a while, momma,” June said, laughing. “See what you can do with him.” And so it was that I played my first hand of blackjack under Maybelle Carter’s expert tutelage. After a few hands had been dealt, Peggy Knight, Maybelle’s personal valet, nurse, and gambling companion —and later, June’s longtime personal assistant—leaned around Maybelle and asked rather stridently, “Are you country or rock ‘n’ roll?” “Which would you prefer?” I asked, matching her contentiousness with my own brand of pugnacious cool. “Aw, leave him alone Peggy,” Maybelle chided, “they’ve been trying to answer that question for forty years.”
Here’s my question: What are the odds that a five-year-old boy in love with a mythical child radio star would come to know the object of his affection as a shining example of what a life lived with love, humor and goodwill stands for? As yet, I don’t know the answer to that question. But I do know this: I have loved June Carter most of my life, and I will continue to love her until I too leave this beautiful world in a new silk shirt.
(June Carter Cash died May 15, 2003, in Nashville, Tennessee, following complications from heart surgery. She was 73.)
(Editors note: This is a slightly revised version of the article which originally appeared in the July/August 2003 issue.)