Although Johnny Cash was born and raised in Arkansas and spent most of his adult life around Nashville, Virginia had a hold on him.
The most obvious connection he had to the Commonwealth was through June Carter Cash, his second wife, who was from southwestern Virginia and a member of the Carter family musical dynasty. Over the course of his career, Cash played far more shows in Virginia than his home state of Arkansas. And it was in Virginia that he gave his last concert.
Cash’s connections to Virginia went back far earlier than his marriage. His ancestors first emigrated from Scotland to the Northern Neck in the 1600s. William Cash, who was born in 1653, landed in Westmoreland County in the 1670s. The county was the early home to Virginia luminaries such as George Washington, James Monroe, and Robert E. Lee. After more than a century, William’s descendants would move to Georgia in 1802, then, just before the Civil War, to Arkansas.
Virginia wouldn’t play a role in the Cash family story again until the 1960s. In 1968, Johnny Cash married June Carter, the daughter of “Mother” Maybelle Carter of the famous and trail-blazing country act the Carter Family. The Carters hailed from Maces Spring (now Hiltons) in Scott County, bordering Tennessee. Not far from Maces Spring is Bristol, Tennessee, where the Carters recorded songs that gave birth to country music as we know it.
As a child, June—who was born in 1929, three years before Cash—performed all over the country with her family. She became a multi-instrumentalist who played autoharp and guitar. Although not blessed with a great singing voice, June developed an energetic and winning stage presence.
In 1947, the Carter family moved into a modest brick house in Glen Allen. June went to high school in Glen Allen before seeking her own career as a musician and actress. June might have been prone to cornball humor as an adult—as was the case with her hayseed character, Aunt Polly—but she studied acting in New York under the renowned coach Lee Strasburg.
Early in his career, Cash met June backstage one night and was so smitten with her that he said he would marry her one day (despite the fact that both were married at the time). In 1961, June became a full-time member of the Johnny Cash Show, which also included Mother Maybelle and June’s sisters Anita and Helen.
After he married Carter, Cash would spend more time in Virginia. Cash played at least 51 dates in Virginia during his career. One date in Berryville in August of 1963 was memorable in that it was where Cash first met the Statler Brothers, the Staunton group that soon became a part of the Johnny Cash Show.
In 1971, the Cash show played Richmond Coliseum. Barbara Green of the Richmond News Leader had a mixed reaction toward the Man in Black. “So what if he can’t carry a tune very well?” she wrote. “He can get a song across.” Her reaction to the Virginians was more effusive. The highlight of the show, she said, was the Carter family, who “provided a breath of fresh air with their simple, uncluttered songs and clearly defined harmonies.” The 1971 show was one of only a few dates Cash played in the Richmond area. His last was in October 1978 at King’s Dominion.
Cash not only played many times in Virginia, he penned some memorable songs about the state. The railroad crash song “Wreck of the Old 97” was one Cash covered for many years. Other memorable tunes included “Jacob Green”—a supposedly true tale of a prisoner who is shamed by his guards and then hangs himself—and the pro-southern, pro-Confederate “God Bless Robert E. Lee.”
Cash’s last public performance was at the Carter Family Fold on July 5, 2003. By then, Cash was in poor health. June had died a few months before, unexpectedly, from complications following heart surgery. Cash was so feeble he could only play sitting down and was able to hold a guitar only with help. But he could still deliver such classics as “Folsom Prison Blues” and “I Walk the Line.”
Family, more than perhaps is the case with any other music, is central to the country genre. Without a doubt, Johnny Cash had strong family ties to the Old Dominion. Cash was a native of Arkansas and the Johnny Cash Museum is in Nashville, but Virginia played an important part in the larger story of the Man in Black.
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