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Johnny Cash: Ring of Fire (2003)

When June Carter, along with her mother Maybelle and sisters Anita and Helen, joined Johnny Cash on his road show in 1961, sparks of love immediately flew.

Originally published in the Johnny Cash: American Original special issue from 2003. This story is presented here in its entirety.

When June Carter, along with her mother Maybelle and sisters Anita and Helen, joined Johnny Cash on his road show in 1961, sparks of love immediately flew. And it all began with a badly wrinkled shirt.

Before a show, June scolded Johnny about the sloppy shirt he was about to wear onstage. “I jerked the shirt off and threw it at her,” Johnny later recalled. “She ironed it, and thus began her lifelong dedication to cleaning me up—and my lifelong acceptance of that mission.”

But before they could become partners for life, something else had to be ironed out. Both were married to others—June to Rip Nix and Johnny to Vivian Liberto, the mother of Johnny’s daughter Rosanne Cash. Still, Johnny and June continued to see each other—on and off the road. June described the torrid affair in the song “Ring of Fire,” which she wrote with Merle Kilgore. The song hit No. 1 on the country charts and landed in pop’s Top 20. Johnny proposed to June onstage in London, Ontario, Canada, in front of 5,000 fans—and they wed in Franklin, Ky., March 1, 1968.

Drug Battles

As Johnny’s marriage to Vivian Liberto was crumbling during the early ’60s, the star began to immerse himself in painkillers and amphetamines. “There was always a battle at home,” Johnny admitted. “I wasn’t going to give up the life that went with music, and Vivian wasn’t going to accept that. Everything just got more difficult as time went on.”

In 1965 he was arrested for carrying a large quantity of pills across the Mexican border at El Paso. His life continued into a downward spiral. Johnny recalled a time in the mid-60s, at the Four Seasons Hotel in Toronto, when June nearly walked out on him because of his drugged-out state.

“She’d set out to save me, and she thought she’d failed,” said Johnny. “June came into my room and told me she was going. She couldn’t handle it anymore.” Johnny locked June—clad only in a towel—out of the room. “She promised not to leave if I would give her back her clothes. And she never did try to leave again.” But June insisted on a change of behavior. Unless Johnny cleaned up his act, and got off the pills, she wouldn’t marry him.

With June’s untiring devotion and help, Johnny was finally able to kick his drug habit. “By November 11, 1967,” he once wrote, “I was able to face an audience again, performing straight for the first time in more than a decade, in Hendersonville, Tennessee. I was terrified before I went on,“ Johnny added, “but I was shocked to discover that the stage without drugs was not the frightening place I’d imagined it to be.”

Fight The Power

Johnny was never known as a man who felt comfortable operating within the system. In his view, “convention” was something one attended, not adhered to.

Johnny’s clashes with the powers-that-be began in 1964, when his recording of “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” about the tragic death of a Native American World War II hero, barely made waves at country radio. Some stations didn’t care for the underlying antiwar sentiments of the song. In response, Johnny took out a full-page ad in Billboard magazine asking radio programmers, “Where are your guts?”

The ’60s also found Johnny at odds with country’s most venerable institution, the Grand Ole Opry. He didn’t agree with the show’s requirement of performing 26 times a year, which cut into his touring schedule. So, even though he was never technically an Opry member, the long-running radio show often invited him to appear as a special guest star. After a performance one evening, though, Johnny was told that the Opry no longer needed his services.

Johnny was definitely the guilty party. He had been taking drugs and drinking, and as he left the stage, he smashed all the footlights with his microphone. The Opry manager informed Johnny, “You don’t have to come back anymore.”

Prisoners’ Hero

Johnny never served prison time, but he felt a certain kinship with prisoners. He often played concerts for inmates at no charge, and the most famous of those shows happened on Jan. 13, 1968, at California’s Folsom Prison.

Johnny recorded a live album there, which would end up giving his career a much-needed shot in the arm. A new version of his 1956 song “Folsom Prison Blues,” complete with screaming inmates in the background, hit No. 1 on the charts—his first in four years.

The album Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison also peaked at No. 1 and won the CMA Award for Album of the Year. In 1969, Johnny recorded another prison album, Johnny Cash at San Quentin, which would prove even bigger. That record introduced Johnny to a new generation of fans with the novelty smash “A Boy Named Sue,” and it hit No.1 on the country and pop charts.

Johnny’s involvement with prisoners actually began in San Quentin 10 years earlier, when he played a New Year’s Day concert there. The show affected one inmate in particular, a youngster named Merle Haggard, doing time for burglary. Inspired by Johnny’s concert, Merle vowed that when he was released, he would make singing and songwriting his career.

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