September 13, 2003. The newspapers carry long obituaries this day devoted to the life of Johnny Cash, dead at age 71, it is reported, of complications of diabetes. The reports are wrong. Johnny Cash died of a broken heart.
It took four months, but then Cash had a strong heart. Four months since the death of his wife of thirty-five years, his lodestone, his anchor, June Carter Cash . Four months since the loss of "the finest woman I have ever known," a country singer like Cash himself, but more than that. She was the bearer of a celebrated family tradition.
It was a tradition she honored, one handed down from her mother, the almost legendary Maybelle Addington Carter, the guitar-playing pillar of the aptly named Carter Family recording artists of the 1920s and 1930s. The Carter Family, with Jimmie Rodgers, virtually defined country music in those formative years. Though there were other popular recording and radio artists, few seemed quite as rooted in traditional music, particularly white gospel. The Carter Family was salt-of-the-earth -- whether on RCA 78's or on the most bombastic of the "border blasters," XERA, broadcasting from Del Rio, Texas. The songs written by Alvin Pleasant Delaney Carter; the autoharp of his wife, Sara; and "Mother" Maybelle's much admired guitar technique are hallowed, honored hallmarks, staples of a purer, of a more "country" sound. Two, three generations of younger singers desirous of C&W celebrity have ignored the Original Carter Family only at their peril.
June Carter suckled that tradition, that sense of continuity, a certainty of belonging from Mother Maybelle's teat. It was bred in the bone. No matter how many songs, good or bad, that June Carter recorded in her own four-decade career, it was the songs she learned from her mother that she hummed in the kitchen, or sang half to herself as she wandered over the Carter-Cash family home. Those were the songs and the hymns, the old ballads that A.P. and Sara and Maybelle sang, the songs that hung in the air around this Maces, Virginia, farm that she breathed in -- deeply, so deeply -- as we are privileged to hear on this compact disc.
On September 18 and 19, 2002, something less than a year ago, June Carter Cash and her second husband, the man born J. R. Cash, gathered together some family members and a couple of friends who happened to be studio musicians for a song session. June herself had selected the songs they would rehearse, sing and record -- no less than seven of them recorded in the RCA Studios in Camden, New Jersey, by her mother's band seventy years before. (While a judiciously selected thirteen tracks are on the disc, the odds are the friends and family recorded more, then selected the best tracks for this CD.)
Wildwood Flower is the result. Here -- and I cannot shake the sense that Ms. Carter realized her time was short, her days scant -- are thirteen songs, sung with her husband, with her daughters, her brother, that reaffirm the great tradition she inherited, and now passes on to us, her fans.
This is at once a sober and a frolicking collection. It is a treasure, not because Ms. Cash is in great voice, but because she is so intense, so convincing. She is telling us that after her three score and ten, these are the songs that, in the end, most matter to her. These are her heritage, her testament, her gift to those of us who were not privileged to keep on the sunny side.
The critic says June Cash's voice is thin, hoarse at times, strained and unsteady. The house band of mostly Carter and Cash family members is under-rehearsed, its entrances and cadences ragged.
If they are not polished, no matter. For all their sophistication, their knowledge of folk music and folklore, on this day they are not music professionals, but informants. Make no mistake, these are field recordings -- as any of us who have recorded folk songs "in the wild" can attest. Forget the neat ritornello or the well timed coda; listen instead to the sheer pleasure the singer and musicians share. This is simply their music, and Roseanne and Laura -- she of the superlative fiddle -- and Johnny Cash himself are having a great time. (You, doubting Thomas, are referred to the Homer and Jethro inspired "Temptation" in which husband and wife make pleasant, loving mock of each other.)
For those of you who loved Johnny Cash or his wife, June Carter, this is an important memento of their life together. It is not a collection of greatest hits -- unless you count the seven Carter Family originals. It is hardly the best singing June Carter Cash has set down for posterity. But it is surely the most heartfelt. Which is why it is so painful when she sings "Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone?" Oh yes, Miss June. You and your husband both.
Note: This is an unusual multi-media disc, containing not only the 13 tracks but four short film clips of June Carter Cash walking about the Carter Family farm in Maces, Virginia, talking about her folks, or rehearsing. On a computer disc drive, the four film clips come up first. To bypass them, or to play the music after viewing the clips, hit the ESCAPE key and call your regular CD player, whatever it might be. (RealOne worked well.)
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