Monday, September 5, 2011

Travels With My Camera: Johnny Cash and the Carter Family

Travels With My Camera
Johnny Cash and the Carter Family
by Daniel Coston
Originally written for Cash photo show in Raleigh, NC 2005
Originally published on Tangents Magazine website, 2010

It’s June 14, 2003, one month after the passing of June Carter. In previous years, June and Johnny Cash had often visited the Carter Family home of Hiltons, VA, hidden deep within the Virginia mountains. June’s cousins, Janette and Joe Carter (children of A.P. and Sara Carter, of the original Carter Family) had built the Carter Family Fold in 1976 as a home for old-time music, and June’s annual return to the Fold (usually based around her June 25th birthday) with Johnny in tow had always been a joyous affair. But now, these shows as seemed as distant a memory as my hope of ever seeing Johnny Cash in person.

I drove to Hiltons on this day for the Fold’s usual Saturday show with no particular reason in mind, other than this feeling that I should go. Yellow ribbons that had been tied in June’s memory sat all along the road to Hiltons, and the sign outside the Fold bore one simple message: Pray For John.

As the show progressed that night, I began to wonder about the Fold’s show the following week. During an intermission, Janette Carter mentioned that next week’s show would be a tribute to June Carter, on what would have been her birthday show. But there seemed to be something that they weren’t saying, a feeling that something special was going to happen. As I was saying goodbye to the Fold’s merch person (whom I later found out to be Flo Wolfe, granddaughter of A.P. and Sara Carter), I knowingly mentioned to her that I was sorry that I had never gotten to see Johnny Cash. Flo smiled, grabbed my arm and said, “Come back next week.” It felt like lightening in a bottle. Something that seemed beyond even my wild imagination was about to happen.

On June 21, 2003, Johnny Cash arrived at the Fold 20 minutes before showtime. Despite his weak legs, he insisted on walking back into the Fold, so son John Carter Cash, and assorted friends and relatives steadied him as he walked, step by anxious step. Despite the Carter’s best efforts to keep the show a secret, word had leaked out and by 7:30pm the venue had sold over 1700 tickets, in a place that can hold usually hold 600 people indoors. The Carter’s folded up the venue’s back walls, and the crowd sat on the mountainside, a sea of people that just seemed to keep going.  

After singing “Folsom Prison Blues” and “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” Cash began to talk to the audience about June. “There is nothing worse that can happen to you than losing the person you love,” he said. “It’s the big one.” I have never heard anyone else talk with such honesty about loss to one person, let alone 1700. “I want to do this song for June,” he later added. “When I sing this song, I think of her. This is for June.” He paused, and then said in a voice that suggested he was talking to someone just beyond the back row, “I know you’re here tonight, baby.” Myself and the entire crowd exhaled and sobbed at once. As Cash, John Carter, John’s wife Laura Cash, Rosie Nix Adams (June’s daughter by Roger Nix), and the rest of the musicians began to play the Stanley Brothers’ “Angel Band,” I wiped the tears from my eyes, and steadied myself to take another picture, completely lost in the moment….

Johnny Cash had intended to perform at the Fold the following week, but it was said that his health and heart weren’t up to the task. But the family said, “Come back next week.” The following week, July 5, Cash was feeling better, and performed again at the Fold despite a ragged voice that bothered him for much of the show. Even with that, Cash told jokes and took a request for his final number, “Understand Your Man.” 

Cash’s love of performing for audiences was still obvious, and he enjoyed returning to a place that meant so much to him and June. After the show, Cash promised the Carter’s that he would return to the Fold that late September, once his new record was finished….

Johnny Cash died on September 12. I returned to the Fold the following week, which had originally planned to be one of the weekends for Johnny’s return, and photographed the matching “We Love You Johnny and June” that the family had put up in front of their summer home.

Six weeks later, Rosie Nix Adams died of an accidental poisoning of carbon monoxide. I was in Atlanta that weekend, and had this feeling that I needed to check my email. There was a message from my photo agency, with only one line written: “Do you have any photos of Rosie Nix Adams?” I immediately knew why they were asking. 

Joe Carter, a man that shared a love of music and slingshots with Cash, died in March of 2005. I watched his family sing “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” at his graveside, as they do for all members of the Cash and Carter family. Janette Carter hung on for another year, and passed away a year later, ending an era in America’s first musical family, and of American music itself. 

“I wish you could have met June Carter,” one of the Carter family members said to me after the July 5th show. “You would’ve gotten on well with her. But you were here for these shows, and that’s okay.” 

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