An Ode to the First Family of Country: The Cash-Carters

When it comes to family lineages in country music, The House of Cash is one of – if not the most – critical. Even if most of the attention falls on Johnny Cash, it should be known just how many musical talents are in his and June Carter’s families. It would be an injustice to talk about the Cash family without paying tribute to the Carter Family, which Johnny married into when he married June.

Johnny Cash and June Carter / John Carter Cash and Johnny Cash / Johnny Cash and his family / June Carter

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It was a match made in heaven, so to speak, since there are now three generations of performers in the Carter-Cash family tree, and it looks like there’s going to be a fourth. So, if you’re looking for a comprehensive family tree of the Cash-Carter dynasty, this is it.

It All Started With the Carter Family Trio

Country music simply wouldn’t be the same (or exist at all) without the original Carter Family trio. It has been well documented that powerhouse vocalist Sara, her song collector husband A.P., and Sara’s instrumentalist cousin Maybelle were the pioneers of country music and folk, bluegrass, and other genres that epitomize the mountains of Virginia.

Maybelle Carter, Sara Dougherty Carter, and Alvin Pleasant Carter with their instruments.

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Then the next generation came along: the Carter children, who started their careers in their parents’ bands before taking on the world via their own creative paths. Through marriage, the family tree branched even further and into epic proportions. There’s no denying just how impactful this talented family was, is, and will continue to be.

AP Carter: 1891 – 1960

Alvin Pleasant Delaney Carter was the patriarch of the Carter Family legacy. Born in Maces Spring, Virginia, he went on to marry Sara Dougherty in 1915 when he was 24. By 1927, the couple joined Sara’s cousin Maybelle (married to AP’s brother Ezra) and formed the Carter Family band.

Maybelle, Alvin P., and Sara pose for a photo together.

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AP was an avid song collector and was known for the songs he selected for his family to sing – so much so that he got credit for writing them even though he didn’t. AP spent so much time on the road searching Appalachia for new songs that his absence eventually led to the demise of his marriage. He and Sara split in 1932, but not before having three kids: Gladys, Janette, and Joe.

Sara Dougherty Carter: 1898 – 1979

Sara was from Copper Creek, Virginia, and even after her divorce from AP, the former couple continued to perform together with Maybelle as the Carter Family during the early 1940s. AP established the commercial viability of folk song collectors, but it was Sara who set the bar high for country vocalists. Sara was known mostly for her deep, distinctive, and mature singing voice.

Sara Carter is singing and playing along with her band.

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She sang the lead on most Carter Family act throughout the 1920s and 1930s. However, in her earliest recordings, her voice was very high-pitched. Sara is credited for writing the songs “Fifty Miles of Elbow Room” and “Keep on the Firing Line,” but she really just discovered these public domain songs when they were sung at a Seventh-day Adventist Church, which she frequented.

Maybelle Carter: 1909 – 1978

Maybelle became one of the first guitar heroes in music. Maybelle was born in Nickelsville, Virginia, and went on to marry Ezra Carter in 1926. They had three daughters: Helen, Valerie, and June. A year after her wedding, she joined her cousin and brother-in-law and started performing.

A photo of Maybelle Carter

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Maybelle played the autoharp and the banjo and eventually picked up a guitar. She even developed a picking technique known as the “Carter Scratch” – an early indication of the guitar’s transition from supporting instrument to lead. After the Carter trio’s run ended, Maybelle stuck around for the 1950s and ’60s with her talented daughters, who performed together as Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters.

A Carter Reunion

Sara reunited with Maybelle in 1966 for the Columbia Records album “A Historic Reunion.” Like in the good old days, they performed together during the folk music craze of the 1960s at the Newport Folk Festival.

Sara and Maybelle sit with their banjo and autoharp.

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After Sara retired to California, she and Maybelle remained close friends for the rest of their lives. Sara and her second husband, Coy, took an annual trip from California to Virginia by car. In the early 1970s, Sara and Maybelle reunited musically again on Johnny Cash’s network TV show and performed together at the first annual AP Carter Memorial Festival in Hiltons, Virginia.

Ezra Carter: 1898 – 1975

Other than being known as the father of the Carter daughters, Ezra Carter (also known as Eck) was an important yet non-visible member of the Carter Family. He managed the trio between 1927 and 1956. He was Maybelle’s husband, AP’s brother, and the father of Helen, June, and Anita.

Ezra Carter poses with his wife Maybelle in the backyard.

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Like his brother AP, Ezra was also born in Maces Spring, Virginia. He was the one who drove the Carter Family band to the original Bristol Sessions recordings in 1927, where Appalachian country music was recorded for the first time. After years working as a railroad postal worker, he became the group manager after AP and Sara divorced. He also directed the stage performances.

Carter Sisters and Mother Maybelle

Following AP’s death in 1960, the Carter Sisters and Mother Maybelle took on the Carter Family as their official name. Maybelle performed with her three daughters from the late 1930s until she died in 1978. The Carter women toured, did radio programs and TV appearances, and made several commercial recordings together.

June, Anita, Helen, and Maybelle Carter pose with their guitars.

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Their sales were better than average, but there were no significant hits. By the early 1950s, the group moved to Columbia Records, with the most popular recording from that era being “Fair and Tender Ladies” and “Foggy Mountain Top” on the B-side.

June Carter Cash: 1929 – 2003

June was the second and middle daughter of Maybelle and Ezra Carter. She sang, played instruments, and acted. The triple threat started performing with the Carter Family when she was just ten years old. By 16, she joined her mom and sisters on the road.

June Carter posed playing an acoustic guitar

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All the while, she was working as a radio announcer for Martha White. June married three different men and had a child with each (Carlene, Rosie, and John). Her famous love affair with Johnny Cash was obviously the most dramatic. They married in 1968 and stayed together until she died in 2003.

(More on these lovebirds’ love story later…)

Helen Carter: 1927 – 1998

Helen’s career in music spanned six decades, which many believe started in 1937 with her radio debut. As a child, Helen played music for some of the biggest radio audiences in history as the powerful signals reached the Mexican Border Stations in the 1930s and 1940s.

A photo of Helen Carter.

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Helen rarely sang lead in the group with her mom and sisters; she was happy focusing her efforts on harmony and instrumental backing. She played the accordion, autoharp, guitar, piano, and mandolin. Many authors and historians saw Helen as the best overall musician and most talented songwriter among the sisters.

Anita Carter: 1933 – 1999

Anita, the youngest of the Carter daughters, experimented with different types of music. She played upright bass and guitar in the group. When Maybelle and the Carter girls joined WSM and the Grand Ole Opry radio show in 1950, Anita was only 17 years old.

A portrait of Anita Carter

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There was a time when the Carter Family opened for Elvis Presley after he became a star in 1956. Whenever Anita sang solo numbers, like “I’ll Be All Smiles Tonight,” she reportedly got “thundering applause.” Eventually, Helen went on her own as a solo artist.

Johnny Cash: 1932 – 2003

JR Cash was born in Kingsland, Arkansas, and was the middle child of seven children. When he enlisted in the Air Force during WWII, he wasn’t allowed to use initials for his first name, so he changed it to John R. Cash.

Johnny Cash performs on stage.

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By 1955, when he signed with Sun Records, he started going as Johnny Cash. In the early 1960s, Cash toured with the Carter Family, alongside Mother Maybelle and her daughters, which is when he met the lovely June. She later admitted to having admired him from afar on these tours.

Tommy Cash: Born in 1941

Johnny’s brother Tommy is eight years his junior and has had a remarkable career of his own. Tommy Cash was the youngest of all seven Cash children, and like Johnny, his music career started when he was still serving in the military – he became a DJ for the Armed Forces Radio Network.

Tommy Cash backstage at a bar.

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After the Army, Tommy toured with Hank Williams Jr. before signing with United Artists in the mid-‘60s. His 1969 song “Six White Horses” – about the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr. – put Tommy on the map.

John Carter Cash: Born in 1970

John Carter Cash is the only child of Johnny and June; he was born two years after they married. John is a singer-songwriter and performer, but he’s best-known as a producer. In fact, he produced his mom’s 1999 Grammy-winning album Press On.

John Carter Cash, age three, stands on stage with his father at a Las Vegas show.

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He also worked as a producer with Rick Rubin on his dad’s American album series. John has produced music for Loretta Lynn, Kris Kristofferson, Sheryl Crow, Rodney Crowell, John Prine, and many others. He even wrote a book about his mom and wrote a number of children’s books.

John and Laura Cash

“Some folks expect my music to sound like my dad’s,” John once said. “I never felt like I had to sound like my dad. I wanted my music to be a creative expression with no expectations.” But he also stated that “the Carter family history means a lot to me.”

John Carter Cash and Laura Cash attend the

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In fact, it was his wife Laura Cash who encouraged her husband to really study and absorb the music of his family. A fiddle player, Laura, had recorded with both Johnny and June. The husband and wife take to the stage together sometimes, with her on the fiddle and him on guitar. Talk about keeping the legacy alive.

Carlene Carter: Born in 1955

Carlene is the daughter of June Carter and Carl Smith, June’s first husband, who was also a singer. Carlene started out as a solo artist in the 1970s playing both country and new wave music; her debut album came out in 1978. By the late ‘80s, she joined her mom and aunts as the Carter Sisters for a tour.

Carlene Carter with Johnny Cash at a formal event.

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But only in 1990 did her career really take off. The album “I Fell in Love” came after her divorce from singer-songwriter Nick Lowe, and it earned her a Grammy nomination. Since then, she’s been bouncing back and forth between acting and music.

Rosie Nix-Adams: 1958 – 2003

Rosie was the daughter of June and her second husband, Edwin Nix, and later Johnny’s stepdaughter. She performed as a backup singer for The Johnny Cash Show as well as for David Grey and Slim Whitman. She also performed with the Carter Family occasionally.

Rosie Nix-Adams poses with another woman.

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Rather tragically, Rosie and a bluegrass musician named Jimmy Campbell were found dead on a bus in Tennessee on October 24, 2003. The deaths were ruled accidental, caused by carbon monoxide from a propane space heater. Rosie was 45 years old. She was then buried near her mother and stepfather (who had both died earlier that year).

Rosanne Cash: Born in 1955

She’s not a blood relative of the Carters, but Rosanne Cash is the daughter of Johnny Cash from his marriage to Vivian Liberto. She’s a singer-songwriter (of many genres) and author. Her most commercially successful single was her 1981 breakthrough hit “Seven Year Ache.”

Roseanne Cash backstage at Park West.

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She won a Grammy Award in 1985 for “I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me” and has been nominated for 12 other Grammy Awards. She’s had 11 No. 1 country hit singles, 21 Top 40 country singles, and two gold records. Roseanne is yet another second-generation Cash with talent.

Jakob Leventhal: Born in 1999

Jakob is the youngest performer that can actually brag about having authentic Cash blood running through his veins. He’s the only child of Rosanne Cash and John Leventhal (her current husband) and makes his way by making folk-style music that veers into indie rock.

A photo of Jakob Leventhal on a rooftop.

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In New York City and Chicago, Jakob is already a prolific artist, having released multiple singles, an eight-song album in 2019 called “Oh, So Bittersweet,” and an EP in 2020 called “Greenwich Village Ghosts.” The 22-year-old has also worked as an engineer, mixer, and producer (sometimes for his mother).

Joanne Cash Yates: 1940

Johnny Cash’s youngest sister grew up just like her musical brothers, singing Gospel hymns during the day while she picked cotton on the farm. She was hired at Johnny’s House of Cash studio, which is when Joanne started singing live professionally.

Joanne Cash Yates and Tommy Cash sit during the press conference.

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Her greatest contribution to country music and Nashville is co-founding the Nashville Cowboy Church, which still operates today. Joanne traveled in a gospel ministry for 15 years, finally settling down in 1990. In 2017, she held a tour of her childhood home in rural Northeast Arkansas, where she told her family story.

Joanne’s Family Tour

As she entered the doorway of her childhood home, the first thing Joanne noticed was the piano she used to play with her mother, Carrie. The mother and daughter would play while Johnny sang. Joanne then noticed the original linoleum floor, which was uncovered when the house was restored.

Joanne, Johnny, and Tommy pose in their backyard.

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The Cash family found themselves in this desolate spot during a harsh bit of history. Drought, sporadic floods, and the Great Depression decimated family farms in the early 1930s. President Franklin Roosevelt started what was then called a socialist plan to help many of these farmers in eastern Arkansas.

Working on the Farm

Ray and Carrie Cash moved to the Dyess Colony in 1935 with their five children, Roy, Louise, Jack, J. R., and Reba. Joanne and Tommy were born in Dyess. At the time, the area was more swamp than farm ground. Once the swamp was drained, 500 farm families, including the Cashes, received 40 acres and a mule through a government-funded program.

The Cash family poses at their home.

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Rice and cotton were the crops grown there. The kids toiled in the cotton fields with their parents during the day. Joanne recalled how their father was a strict disciplinarian and worked extremely hard. The Cash kids were taught to work for what they earned.

The Room They Shared as Kids

Joanna shared a room with three of her siblings, including Johnny. When she walked into that room, she smiled. Tommy and Johnny shared the same bed for several years – he joked about it often, she said in the tour.

The Cash family takes a photo on their front porch.

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“Tommy likes to tell people that he’s the only man who has ever slept with Johnny Cash,” Joanne said to a round of laughter from those following her through the house. She then stopped in her parents’ room. Someone on tour asked Joanne what Ray would think if he was here now. “He’s in heaven. I’m sure he’d rather go back to heaven than be here,” she said.

The Day Johnny’s Voice Changed

Joanne made her way into the kitchen, which triggered even more memories. She recalled her mother making bread and the fact that she canned all their fruits and vegetables. Her mother was washing dishes one afternoon when she noticed something very different about Johnny.

Johnny Cash plays acoustic guitar as he reclines on a bed.

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He was always singing, but on this day, the teenager’s voice was different – it had dropped. When Mrs. Cash heard her boy singing gospel in the yard that day, she knew he was going to be someone special. Joanne then moved on to the bathroom, noting that the house never had running water.

Reliving the Memories Is Bittersweet

Joanne described how a small pot sat on the floor where a toilet would have been. The first ten years in that home, they had no electricity. A few tourists trickled into the house. In the living room is a mirror that plays a video of Johnny Cash returning to the house many years after the family left.

Johnny Cash is sitting outside his childhood home.

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For Joanne, reliving the past is a mixed experience. When she exited the house and headed back to the car, she said, “Back then, you couldn’t afford to buy stuff. You had to make everything… being in the house is bittersweet.”

Cindy Cash: Born in 1959

Rosanne’s younger sister and half-sister to John Carter, Cindy Cash’s musical contributions are worth noting. She was nine when her dad and mother Vivian divorced. She sang with her dad and her stepmother June often and even made appearances on The Johnny Cash Show.

Johnny Cash performs on stage with his daughter Cindy Cash.

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Cindy performed in the group The Next Generation in the late ‘80s, including Loretta Lynn’s daughter Peggy, Conway Twitty’s daughter Kathy, and the George Jones and Tammy Wynette’s daughter Georgette. In 1997, she published a book on the Cash family called The Cash Family Scrapbook.

Thomas Gabriel: Born in 1973

Thomas Gabriel is Johnny Cash’s first grandson. His mother Kathy (one of four of Johnny Cash’s daughters) gave birth to Thomas when she was just 16, so grandparents Johnny and June often stepped in to help with parenting.

Thomas Gabriel poses with Johnny Cash memorabilia.

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At 13, Thomas was already showing signs of having inherited his family’s musical attributes, and sadly, that also meant his grandfather’s propensity towards addiction. Johnny had to take Thomas to his first AA meeting, which would be the first of many. Thomas eventually became a police officer and worked as a cop for eight years.

Thomas Went From Cop to Convict

However, all the overnight shifts and pills led Thomas down a troubled path. Sooner or later, he found himself on the wrong side of the law, going in and out of jail, and eventually serving a 10-year prison sentence.

A photo of Thomas Gabriel.

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Thomas finally gained control of his demons and started pursuing music with a purpose. In fact, he wrote a handful of songs while in prison. His 2018 album “Long Way Home” takes you through an autobiography of his turbulent life with an eerie connection and continuation of the Johnny Cash story.

Chelsea Crowell: Born in 1982

Rosanne Cash and Rodney Crowell’s daughter Chelsea never wanted to ride off anyone’s coattails or take advantage of her famous name. The singer-signwriter toured and performed with both her mother and father.

Chelsea Crowell and Rosanne Cash perform at a benefit.

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Chelsea released multiple albums without a label and was all self-funded, which is pretty impressive. She has been very open about her anxieties over making music and has mostly remained under the radar compared to the other sons and daughters of country music stars. She has a self-titled album from 2009 and an album called Crystal City from 2011. Yes, mom and dad are proud.

Making History as Country’s Most Beloved Couple

When it comes to the Cash-Carter family, the most remarkable tale is the love story between the mama and papa, June and Johnny. These two really add another level to the saying “…and the rest is history.” Once these two met, they literally MADE history.

Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash pose for a portrait at an event

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Anyone who saw the 2005 film Walk the Line, with Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix, will know a thing or two about the famed love story. But, of course, there’s more to these talented individuals than what we see in a simple (albeit beautifully made) two-hour film.

Their Lives Before They Met

It was at the Grand Ole Opry that June met her first husband, Carl Smith, a honky-tonk singer. They wed in 1952 when she was 23 years old. They had their daughter Carlene not long after. Johnny was also married in the early ‘50s – to Vivian Liberto, whom he met at a roller-skating rink in San Antonio.

June Carter and Carl Smith pose beside their car.

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They endured a whirlwind of a romance before, during, and after Cash’s service in the military. By 1954, they were married and had four daughters: Rosanne, Kathy, Cindy, and Tara.

This was all before June came into the picture and changed everything…

When Johnny Met June

In the summer of 1956, Johnny made his first appearance on the Grand Ole Opry stage – where June and her family were already performing. He had just released “I Walk the Line,” which was a new and fresh crossover hit for fans of pop and country.

June and Johnny are sharing a microphone on stage.

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June’s husband welcomed Cash to the show, having no idea that he was essentially introducing his future ex-wife to her future husband. It was their backstage introduction that made the biggest impact on Johnny. “I’ve always wanted to meet you,” he told June, whom he grew up listening to on the radio.

Thank You, Mr. Presley

June was fresh off a tour with Johnny’s friend and fellow musician, Elvis Presley. The future King of Rock ‘n Roll played a part in the couple’s meeting. June said herself, “I first heard of Johnny through Elvis Presley. Elvis would make me go into these little cafés and listen to John on the jukebox when we played in the South – in the Carolinas and all down through Florida and Georgia.”

A studio portrait of Elvis Presley

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So, during their first backstage moment at the Grand Ole Opry, when Johnny told June that he always wanted to meet her, her response was: “I feel like I know you already.” Awwww.

She Saw Sparks

June later wrote in the notes of Cash’s 2000 box set album, “Love, God, Murder,” that she couldn’t “remember anything else we talked about, except his eyes.” Now, let’s not forget that these two were married when they met each other.

Johnny Cash and wife June Carter Cash performing on stage.

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Nonetheless, the sparks were undeniable. It was only a matter of time until those sparks turned into flames. According to The Vintage News, June didn’t fall for him as quickly as he did for her. They ended up together, so it doesn’t really matter. But still, they started out professional.

They Remained Professional on Tour

In the early 1960s, June toured with Johnny regularly as his backup singer and sometimes as a duet partner. By then, June had already divorced Carl Smith, but she entered her second marriage to police officer Edwin Nix (they had a daughter, Rosie, together).

Johnny Cash And June Carter perform on stage.

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During their time on the road together, Johnny and June remained married to their partners. By 1966, Vivian filed for divorce from Johnny, and within a year, June was officially on the market. Johnny’s marriage to Vivian failed mostly due to his struggles with addiction as well as his frequent absences and infidelities.

He Proposed to Her Several Times

Meanwhile, June was battling addictions of her own. Still, having toured together for so long, the traveling musicians got to know each other very well. By the late ‘60s, Johnny and June were single, and Johnny was head over heels in love with June. In fact, he proposed to her several times.

Johnny and June hold hands on stage.

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June initially refused his proposals as she didn’t want to get involved with an addict. She was also twice divorced with two children from different fathers. She didn’t want to be hasty in her decision of whom to marry next. But Johnny surprised her one night on stage with an offer she couldn’t refuse.

The Offer She Couldn’t Refuse

Johnny proposed to June on stage at the London Ice House in front of 7,000 people in February of 1968. She couldn’t say no to that. A few weeks after saying “yes,” the two walked down the aisle. They were married in Kentucky on March 1, 1968.

June and Johnny Cash on their wedding day.

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“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,” June confessed in an interview.

A Ring of Fire

Sound familiar? It was the thought June had that inspired the famous duet “Ring of Fire” with Merle Kilgore. The song was first released as a single by June’s sister Anita before Johnny ever recorded it. June was really falling for this man, and she couldn’t ignore her feelings for much longer.

Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash pose for a portrait.

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“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 even to know I’ve got these feelings. I never talked much about how I fell in love with John,” June told Rolling Stone in 2000.

A Passionate Marriage

“It was not a convenient time for me to fall in love with him, and it wasn’t a convenient time for him to fall in love with me. I was frightened of his way of life. I thought I couldn’t fall in love with this man,” June said.

Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash embrace on their front porch.

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Their marriage was definitely full of passion and flames – both good and bad. The couple would leave love notes for each other during their marriage, but it wasn’t always a smooth ride. They also endured cycles of rehab, near-death experiences, interventions, and affairs.

The good news, though, is that their love for music and each other is what has stood the test of time. And the Cash-Carter legacy continues.