Let’s talk about my little auburn haired, blue-eyed Mother, born on June 23, 1929 to Maybelle Addington Carter and Ezra J. Carter and they named her Valerie June Carter. My grandma was assisted in the birth by her mother, my great grandma, Molly Carter. As the story is told, Molly was a strong woman who midwifed for “The Valley” and the surrounding areas around Clinch Mountain and basically anywhere her mule could carry her! Maces Springs, VA was also called “Poor Valley” by those relations of mine who were so deeply enriched with Appalachian pride and the love of that beautiful part of southwestern Virginia.
Junie, as grand-daddy called her, was the second of the three daughters they would raise. First was Helen, then June, then Anita. By all accounts Momma came out hollering and talking up a storm! She once swore to me she was dancing before she could walk and the truth is that she never could sit still for too long. She was a beautiful “Poor Valley Girl” with the heart of an angel and the restless soul of a gypsy. She was, in her own words, “eaten up with a thirst for life” and very, very ambitious! She set upon her quest to see the world by driving Grandpa’s logging truck, as he said she needed to do, ‘round the crooked curves of the dirt roads that wound through the mountains when she was eight. (Here I must mention that Mother was somewhat prone to exaggeration). At that same age she became a bonafide radio and recording star, singing with Mother Maybelle and the Carter sisters. She was a big ham y’all! There’s no doubt that trait served her well in her life.
Basically, my Momma was a wearer of many hats. Literally. Not only did she love hats, but she was masterful in juggling different ones that she used in her life on every occasion. She would wear a different hat to reflect each of her aspects. Literally at first then, perhaps, figuratively. That’s what made her such a great entertainer. She took full advantage of any opportunity that came her way which might afford her a chance to shine. Whatever she may have lacked in the vocal range she made up for in volume. She was a world-class friend to the friendless!
While school was for learning, she was a dreamer but she ultimately found books to be her playground when she wasn’t fishing or floating down the Holsten River or weeding the garden, doing the house work, quilting, crocheting, playing the autoharp and making up skits for special occasions. Each morning while walking to school or church with her sisters she’d sing; she was surrounded by music her entire life. She craved the feeling she got singing those spirituals that would ring through the valley every Sunday. She passed that on to us, me and my sister Rosey and, later, to our brother John Carter Cash. She was a woman of faith and she was beautiful!
When things shifted for The Carter Family with AP and Sara’s divorce, Grandpa started the push for Grandma Maybelle to teach the kids to pick their instruments and sing harmonies ‘cause the music had to stay alive and be carried on! Like I often say about my own life, all she really ever wanted when she grew up was to be a Carter Girl and she became just that and much, much, much more and to go ever further! When they performed on a million watt Texas-Mexico border radio station, she was dubbed “Little Junie Carter.” She was a brilliant comedian whose humor got her out of more situations that might have embarrassed a less talented girl. She wrote her own comedy skits and little commercials that they’d sing for an extra bit of pocket change.
They would eventually head to Nashville to join The Grand Ol’ Opry. She wrote commercials for Martha White’s self-rising flour and become the funny girl who made every guy her straight man. One of these was Carl Smith, at the time the biggest selling country artist with numerous #1 records. He was “the one”! And so, they became the “sweethearts of the Opry.” They married in 1952 and life was exciting and hopeful as they both were having success in their careers but their fairytale love story was derailed by differences that emerged between them. I don’t think my Daddy saw it coming. Momma was an independent woman who still had dreams beyond being a wife and mother. So they divorced shortly after I was born. It may sound odd coming from me, but I couldn’t imagine it any other way.
Momma loved the Broadway Theater and wanted deserately to be an actress so off we went, after she and Daddy divorced, to try to fulfill that dream. She was heartbroken over the divorce so she took that emotion that ate at her and went to New York to study acting with Sandy Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse. She was a struggling New York actress during the week and would fly us back to Nashville to play the Grand Ol’ Opry on the weekends to pay for acting school. One of my first memories as a tiny kid was sleeping in a bed that was made inside the bottom drawer of a huge chest of drawers.
She had begun doing more solo work and would do shows on her own and some that the Family was on. She was working more and more but the acting thing didn’t take off quite the way she would have liked. Still it was always, throughout her life, something she really loved and wanted to do. Eventually her dream was realized when she played Robert Duvall’s mother in “The Apostle.”
After her second marriage and the birth of my little sister, Rosey, she worked much of the time. She didn’t know how not to! There was another hat she wore the “Momma’s home” hat! For the most part that looked like this: She would tour and then, when she came home and we would work on making the entire 15 acre little farm we lived on look like it was hand manicured. Because, it really was! She drove the tractor and I followed in the riding mower, pulling a trailer. Rosey’s job was to pick up every little stick and rock and throw that stuff in the trailer. There were also the fencerows that had to be hand trimmed with clippers — there were no weed whackers back then. That, too, was our job. We always had a garden that had to be weeded and watered, flowers had to be pruned, patios swept. It was hard work for a couple of little kids, but we wanted to be like our Momma and would do whatever she said she needed us to do. We were just thrilled to be with her. She always smiled when she was leaving for the next trip out because, in her mind, home had been taken care of. We were conditioned for years not to cry; this was her job. I now understand more that this was her life and she truly loved it!
Another constant in our lives were the trips on the road with her. Trips with Grandma Helen, Anita and Mom going to sing and play for the “folks” as they always called them and trips with just Momma. I learned to read a map before I was 7, so I felt important and part of the show, in some way. Then to watch my eccentric Mother turn into June Carter, The Entertainer, then right back into the Momma who tucked me into my makeshift napping space (Aunt Nita’s upright bass case), always tender and ending in a little prayer!
I have vivid memories of her visits to my class from first grade all the way through sixth. It was June with her banjo performing in my classroom for all my schoolmates. It was great the first few years, but by the time I was in the fifth and sixth grade it was kind of embarrassing for a girl who was trying to fit in and be “normal.” One thing I am grateful for especially is that she taught us that this, our life, was normal! And so it really was at least for us, as we didn’t know any different. To us all the other kids were “different”! I once asked my girlfriend at school if her Momma was coming to do a show for us. I figured all Moms must do that! I think she was trying out new material on us! Ha!
When I was about six, Momma told us she was going to be starting a new job! It would be as part of “The Johnny Cash Show.” She explained she had made this decision based on the fact she would work only 10 days and the rest of the month she would be home with us. To two little girls who had spent more time at Grandma Carter’s and Aunt Helen and Anita’s houses than with their own mother this was pretty exciting. Besides, she said it was an amazing opportunity for her so it would be better all around.
Well, you know pretty much how the story went from there. She seemed happier for sure. She started concentrating on becoming a better songwriter. “Ring Of Fire” was written and she said to her little Carlene, “I know this is a good song, I believe this could be a big record!” She was inspired by all this new big stuff that was happening so rapidly! She was seeing more and more of the world and we were hearing more and more about Johnny Cash. She would say things like “John is a special man, a good man, but he’s fighting a battle he needs help with! So I need you girls to say a prayer every night that God watches over him and guides him back to being the man God wants him to be!” So we did and we knew he would be OK ‘because God wanted him to get better!
She brought music home and sat me down, “Listen to the young man, his music is going to change the world!” It was Bob Dylan. She bought me records she thought were new and exciting, groundbreaking stuff. I didn’t understand it, intellectually, but I loved it. She taught me how to play the piano; the first song was a boogie woogie. I told a friend and she thought it was something scary – you know like the boogieman — I was talking about. Next came the ukulele and I was obsessed with trying to play music. I thank my Mother for this gift because I wasn’t old enough to know I wanted or needed it. These are just a couple of examples of things most mothers would never dream of sharing with their little girls.
While touring with John, we would go out on the road, especially when they played fair dates. John was always loving and generous with his attention. Momma was married to Rip, Rosey’s dad, and we just knew that John was her very special friend. In those early days, she protected us from most of the crazy behavior he was prone to. He spent a lot of time at Grandma and Grandpa Carter’s house and even had his own room. They were trying to help John “get better” that was the phrase used most often. Phone calls from John to June about work, ending in tears, were not about the next string of dates.
I was ten when Momma took Rosey and me to New York to see a musical which was something we had been doing a couple of times a year for as long as I could remember. We got to the hotel and she sat us down to talk. ”When we go home in a couple of days your Daddy Rip will be gone and won’t be living with us anymore. We’re getting a divorce, but you’ll see him anytime you want to.”
Until this point, Momma had not allowed John to spend time at our house. With this new journey on which we were embarking, we started taking trips to go fishing down in Florida — John, Momma, Rosey and me — where Grandma and Grandpa Carter had a house on the Gulf. We loved these trips! John was fun, and even though there was a nervousness about him at times because of his not being quite “better” yet (at least that was the explanation) but we were all helping him! And Momma was smiling and laughing, which she hadn’t done a lot of during the Rip years. And so we watched and waited, not fully understanding what we were waiting on. Yet…
The years turned to decades and many beautiful moments were shared. Hers was a well-traveled soul. No matter how far away I ever was from her geographically or how far I veered off the path that she swore was preordained for me, Momma was with me. I think of a hard time I was going through, she looks me in the eye and says as I’m leaving home, “You can do this! You are the strongest woman I’ve ever known!” I’m pleading and saying, “But I don’t want to be!”…she replies sweetly and softly in my ear, “Oh honey, but you are, I know because I taught you to be.”
As I’m nearing 60 I can say that she was always my greatest supporter and teacher. I can look back and see that so clearly now. Working with my Momma was and is still my most precious memory. I learned so much from watching her wrap an audience around her finger.
A few other things she taught me…
– Master the “Wildwood Flower” even if it takes you the rest of your life.
– The information about the art of song writing and the importance of it comes from practicing your craft and if it’s from your heart, it’s from God.
– Money ain’t everything but it sure as hell helps.
– To stand up for myself and remember that anyone who is unkind to me does not deserve me.
– If you can afford to buy something a bit extravagant, do it, then accessorize at Target.
– If you want something fattening to eat, a bite will suffice.
– Always make your bed with beautiful linens cause you’re husband will love it, even though he doesn’t think he will.
– If your hair is stringy put a little curl in it.
– You can be and do anything your heart desires if you work hard.
– Never be selfish with love or your toys.
– Take care of your sister, Rosey.
– And if it’s cold outside or you’re hot and the sun’s going to burn you wear a hat.