June Carter Cash,
Press On
(Risk, 1999; Dualtone, 2003)

I missed this record on its initial release on another label in 1999, and I heard it for the first time just four days after June Carter Cash's death on May 15, 2003. That melancholy fact inevitably shaded my feelings and added a level of poignancy to, for example, these words from the opening cut, one of the Carter Family's signature songs:

The day will soon be over
And the digging will be done
No more gems to be gathered
So let us all press on.
When Jesus comes to claim us
And says it is enough
The diamonds will be shining
No longer in the rough.

Press On is itself a diamond in the rough, a livingroom sort of record, all acoustic, harking back to the old Southern-folk sound of A.P., Sara and Maybelle -- who was, of course, June's mother. Carter Cash plays and sings with her husband and with old friends like Marty Stuart, Rodney Crowell and Norman Blake. Three of the songs are from the classic Carter repertoire (including the inevitable closer, "Will the Circle Be Unbroken?") and one, though it isn't, could as well be, "The Far Side Banks of Jordan."

The last, a duet with Johnny, is a conversation between a husband and wife, each promising to wait in heaven for the other should he or she go first. When one considers that nearly everybody assumed that Johnny, his health ravaged by a hideous, life-sucking disease, would die well before June, it is chilling and almost unbearably sad to hear her singing these lines:

But if it proves to be His will
That I will be the first to cross
And somehow I have the feeling
That it will be....

This song is the album's high point, the throwaway "Tiffany Anastasia Lowe" the lowest. In between, it's interesting to hear "Ring of Fire," which June wrote four decades ago with Merle Kilgore, as it was originally conceived, namely as a folkish acoustic song. "Tall Lover Man," a more recent original, is written in the style of a traditional murder ballad. Other songs, notably the high-spirited "Gatsby's Restaurant" and the affecting "I Used to be Somebody," are purely autobiographical, The former recalls June's 1950s career in New York City, and the latter evokes the ghosts of old, long-dead pals James Dean, Elvis Presley, Patsy Cline and Hank Williams. But didn't Jean Ritchie, not Tom T. Hall, write "The L&N Don't Stop Here Anymore"?

Press On is more good feeling than great musicianship, which is not such a bad thing when one puts it up against a lot of painstakingly executed yet utterly soulless recordings. As June Carter Cash's last musical will and testament -- and as, in a way, the last echo of the great Carter Family legacy -- it perfectly closes the circle.

- Rambles
written by Jerome Clark
published 31 May 2003

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