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New June Carter Cash Documentary Brings the Icon Out of Johnny Cash’s Shadow

Emmy-winner Kristen Vaurio shares everything you need to know about ‘June’ on Paramount+

June Carter Cash will forever be associated with her husband, Johnny Cash, but as many die-hard country fans know, the singer, songwriter, comedian and actress who wrote “Ring of Fire” was far more than the woman behind the man, and that gets revealed in a new documentary called June. In fact, as a member of the Carter Family, she was changing the game, hanging out with Marlon Brando, and touring with Elvis long before she ever met Cash.

The new Paramount+ feature-length documentary June tells Carter Cash’s story from her earliest days onstage in the 1940s to winning her first solo Grammy in 1999 for Press On and her final two posthumously in 2003 for Wildwood Flower.

First for Women traded emails with director Kristen Vaurio to find out what viewers can expect from June – which features never-before-seen archival materials and Carter Cash interviews, as well as fresh interviews with her family, Dolly Parton, Reese Witherspoon, Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris and more.  

June documentary shines new light on Carter Cash

June Carter Cash
June Carter CashCourtesy of John R. Cash Revocable Trust/Paramount+

With a 2015 Emmy for producing Going Clear: Scientology & The Prison of Belief, Kristen Vaurio seems to have a penchant for exposés. Having cut her chops working on documentaries about Eugene O’Neill, Andy Warhol and Robin Williams, however, she jumped at the opportunity to direct a feature about June Carter Cash.

“When I tell people outside of Nashville that I made a film about June Carter Cash, there is generally a pause and you almost hear the mental gears turning,” Vaurio explains via email. “Then they say ‘Oh, Johnny’s wife?’ She was so much more than that! He was the one who wanted HER autograph as a kid.”

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“People need to know that June is the glue that holds so much of country music together — from the very beginning through Johnny and into today,” she adds. “She was so brilliant. She mentored so many younger musicians. Her touch and influence are absolutely everywhere. She’s been there all along, but because Johnny is one of the biggest stars that ever lived, she gets eclipsed.”

June honors Carter Cash’s contributions to country music — including her early years, her commitment to keeping alive the legacies of both the Carter Family and Johnny Cash, and how she grew to become a country music matriarch who hosted “pickin’ sessions” with the likes of Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, Waylon Jennings and Shel Silverstein.

With Carter Cash’s professional and private life so often intertwined, the documentary also delves into her personal journey. As an ambitious woman, Carter Cash was ahead of her time when she faced challenges like being a single mother flying between Manhattan’s acting world and Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry to build her career — and once again, during her years with Johnny, in the way she handled not only his addiction, but also her own codependence.

“There is a timeless lesson in her story about sticking it out,” Vaurio previews. “I think June was underestimated, but she never underestimated herself. Out of all her qualities, her ability to pick herself up, dust herself off, and press on is the one I admire most. Stories of success are rarely pretty and rarely linear. There are stumbles and detours.”

Before June Carter met Johnny Cash

For many viewers, the first half of June will be full of surprising reveals. Packed with archival footage and retrospective interviews, it chronicles Carter Cash’s place in the Carter Family and the Grand Ole Opry, her first marriage to country singer Carl Smith, and her ambitious schedule as a divorced single mom breaking into acting.

“I absolutely loved learning about her time in New York,” Vaurio shares. “The fact that she was in Greenwich Village, studying under Meisner with the Beats around the corner and Brando and Dylan around – unbelievable! All while commuting to Nashville and having a daughter. And to see her in those dramatic TV roles against the comedic performances for The Opry is such a stark contrast. It really shows her range.”

The Carter Family
The Carter Family Don Hunstein/Sony Music Entertainment/Paramount+

Carter Cash grew up performing on stage with her sisters and family. Her mother, Mother Maybelle, was a legendary guitar player who created what’s today referred to as the Carter scratch. While Carter Cash could certainly hold her own, it’s often said it was only her humor and ambition that made her stand out.

“There is so much made about her not being the best musician of the Carters, but they were all brilliant,” Vaurio says. “It’s like being the shortest player on an NBA championship team!”

“June played so many instruments, she was an encyclopedia of songs, she was a star, she sang, she acted, she wrote books and screenplays, and on and on,” she continues. “She was also in the middle of everything. She was Hank Williams Jr.’s godmother, she taught Elvis how to tune his guitar, she was the one who watched Patsy Cline’s kids when she died.”

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June Carter Cash documentary honors the whole Carter Cash love story

June Carter Cash and Johnny Cash
June Carter Cash and Johnny CashBob Cato/Courtesy of Sony Music Entertainment/Paramount+

The documentary’s tone shifts with Carter Cash’s unexpected second pregnancy, which saw her marry Edwin “Rip” Nix, who was not in the business, in 1957. After that threw her budding acting career off track, falling completely and unexpectedly for Cash shifted her trajectory yet again. While Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon’s Walk the Line tells a piece of Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash’s love story, June aims to tell the whole story.

“There is a desire to make it into a fairy tale, and I’m of two minds about this,” Vaurio admits. “I do think they had an incredibly deep and powerful love, and there is a magical element to it. That said, I think it does them — and all of us — a disservice to see it as fated and pre-ordained. They were real people with incredibly difficult struggles.”

Johnny Cash, John Carter Cash and June Carter Cash
Johnny Cash, John Carter Cash and June Carter CashJT Phillips/Courtesy of Sony Music Entertainment/Paramount+

With addiction at the heart of those struggles and the inspiration for the song “Ring of Fire,” June investigates not just how it affected Carter Cash, but their entire blended family.

“I owe an enormous amount to John Carter, Carlene, and Roseanne Cash on this topic,” says Vaurio. “From the beginning, they wanted to tell a full story of June’s life – not just the accomplishments and highs.

“There is one popular narrative that June ‘saves’ Johnny from his addictions,” she continues. “And that’s another myth I hope we dispel. She certainly loved and supported him, but addiction is often a chronic and recurring illness. Johnny struggled his whole life, and June struggled similarly with codependency. They made mistakes and they forgave. They also worked very, very hard to make it last. That is a truer, more relatable, and more interesting story.”

As the film reflects, Carter Cash stepped back from the spotlight for a decade, letting her husband take the stage with The Highwaymen, which included Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson.

June Carter Cash
June Carter Cash Urve Kuusik/Courtesy of Sony Music Entertainment/Paramount+

It was when she reclaimed the microphone and recorded Press On, with Cash backing her up, that Carter Cash earned her first solo Grammy.

“A real moment for me was when we discovered Alan Messer had filmed the recording of Press On,” Vaurio shares. “That album was such an important framing device for the film because it was June coming into her own and telling her story through music.

“My primary goal in making this film was to center June,” she adds. “I wanted her to tell this story and to see her as much as possible, so that has to come from archival materials — and we had so much wonderful material!”

How to watch June

As June hits the small screen, director Kristen Vaurio admits she’s still pinching herself over having gotten to sit down with the likes of Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, Reese Witherspoon, Robert Duvall, and Kacey Musgraves to talk about Carter Cash. She’s also thrilled to help shine the spotlight on a country music legend who has so long been overlooked.

“June was so multidimensional and brilliant that I was constantly surprised and delighted,” Vaurio marvels. “How often do you intersect with such a charismatic character with such a remarkable story that people just don’t know?”

June, a feature-length documentary about country singer/songwriter June Carter Cash, will begin streaming on Paramount+ on Tuesday, January 16 in the US and Canada and on Wednesday, January 17, in the UK, Australia, Latin America, Brazil, Italy, France, Germany, Switzerland and Austria.

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