Twenty years ago, on October 4 1997, an opportune moment in music history led to the making of a friendship that, although Johnny and June Cash would pass within a few months of each other six years later, transcends time and, through family, remains to the present day.
The meeting of minds, between the legendary Cash’s and the equally legendary A & R representative and music manager, Vicky Hamilton, would take place at the House of Blues down on Sunset Boulevard.
Vicky had, at the time, convince Marc Geiger, of Rick Rubin’s label (American), to allow The Freewheelers the opportunity to open for ‘The Man in Black,’ Johnny Cash and, as the old adage sure goes, the rest is history.
Having previously seen Cash perform at the Viper Room a stripped back version of their incredible music nearly four years before, this became a sudden opportunity that was too good to miss.
It would be Rick that prove the main instigator of historical event which, in her life story ‘Appetite for Dysfunction: A Cautionary Tale,’ Vicky describes as this.
Rick Rubin gave me a look that I had seen many times before.
“You should go talk to her,” he said to me.
“I don’t know Rick, I would feel weird. She is country music’s first lady,” I said.
“Go talk to her, you should make a record with her,” Rick said.
“What?! I don’t know anything about country music,” I retorted.
“You are the coal-miners’ daughter, you are the perfect person to make her record,” Rick said.
From that moment on Vicky’s life changed forever and, over the next six years, the last six years of Johnny and June’s respective lives up to their respective deaths, within six months of each other, in May (June) and September (Johnny) 2003.
But from that evening on the Boulevard, a brief face-to-face conversation in a stairwell at the House of Blues, and Vicky was smitten.
Looking back on that six year spell, twenty years from its inception, Vicky Hamilton opens up about that night, and her relationship with the first lady of country.
“When Rick Rubin told me I should make a record with June Carter Cash, I was flattered, but didn’t think I had the tools to make a Country record,” said Vicky who, throughout her entire music career, has been a rock chick to the core.
“It was one of the greatest nights of my life, and life changing.
“The next day I got to my office and there was a message from June that said ‘Rick Rubin said you need to make my record.’
“I fell in love with June from that moment on.
“She was one of a kind. She had this beautiful upbeat personality and this came across in all of her live performances.
“I can’t name anyone that plays autoharp like her but John Carter Cash and his wife Ana pretty much nail ‘Jackson’ live.”
John Carter, their son, and Ana, John’s wife, have remained friends with Vicky in the ensuing years, the rock queen having attended the weeding of the pair last year and Ana, as of 11 September, giving birth to Grace June Cash.
Conversations, phone calls, and afternoon tea with June and her friend Rosemary Edelson later saw the catalyst of a burgeoning and beautiful friendship.
Vicky added: “You couldn’t help but fall in love with June, she sparkled.
“She was so enthusiastic, I just knew I had to get involved and make the record with her.
“It felt like destiny, but looking back, it felt like a dream.”
The first couple of years, between October 1997 and September 1999, would see countless hours being worked on the tracks that would eventually make up the ‘Press On’record, something which they officially began putting together in the fall of 1998, the cover image a photo of June in Jamaica and CD image of which being a traditional southern image of one of the china plates from June’s kitchen.
Everything which happened around June possessed elements of elegance, beauty, romanticism, and it’s little wonder Vicky, and others which June’s hand touched, held her in such high esteem.
“(Over lunch) she told me about all the tracks she had written in her lifetime.
“It was a little overwhelming, so over the next couple of months she sent me several demo tapes of bare bone recordings of the songs that she and John Carter put together in the Cash Cabin (a makeshift recording studio in Hendersonville across from the where the Cash’s lived).”
Johnny and June singing together was always a tender, special moment and, with June having told Vicky that in fact she had wrote one of Johnny’s greatest hits, ‘Ring of Fire,’ then their duet of ‘The Far Side Banks of Jordan’ would be just as special.
Vicky explained in Appetite for Dysfunction about the hit single that June had told her:
“When I fell in love with Johnny, I didn’t know what to do, I felt like a big ring of fire was going to swallow me up. “
Vicky’s love for June strengthened even more that day.
The day they put together ‘The Far Side Banks of Jordan’ was uniquely special, and powerful, but it was also something that natural for Johnny and June, done with persistent ease.
“I had seen them perform this song in concert and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house,” stated Vicky.
“But in this intimate setting in a little cabin in Tennessee with Johnny Cash telling stories about his life with June, it was surreal yet so real and beautiful.”
And the album itself, with Gabrielle Raumberger as creative director, ‘Press On’ eventually became reality, on Vicky’s own label, Small Hairy Dog, which she set-up to release the record.
On several occasions Vicky was reduced to happy tears as, although people failed to recognize her involvement, Johnny and June did not.
Vicky’s beloved mother, Clara Virginia, is also a lineal note in the record packaging and, a month after the release, and Johnny’s birthday, the Cash’s were visiting Los Angeles when Vicky was invited to the hotel they were staying with his telling her that:
“You did this. Everybody is trying to take credit for it but I know you did this…..I just wanted to thank you. This is what I’ve always wanted for June. It’s a beautiful record inside and out.”
“She dedicated the album to her mother, Maybelle, and mothers everywhere,” continued Vicky.
“It makes me cry when I think about the words she wrote to my Mom.
“It was such an honour for her and for me. I still can’t believe it, such a high point in my career.”
And Johnny: “The most rewarding moment of my career.
“Yes, it makes me tear up when I read that part out loud at readings, I am such an emotional girl, and so grateful for the time I spent with John and June.”
‘Press On’ would go on to win a Grammy Award in February 2000 for ‘Best Traditional Folk Record,’ June would see another record, ‘Wildwood Flower,’ released on Dualtone Records, shortly before she, then Johnny, would leave this world and, although when Vicky’s mom Clara, passed in early 2000, June wanted to attend and sing ‘Will the Circle be Unbroken,’ (unable due to Johnny’s illness), Vicky and the Cash’s have remained united.
“I got sober in 2000 and June definitely got me thinking there was more to life and I’m now 17 years clean and sober. I am grateful,” she said.
“I am glad to still be a part of John Carters life and his new wife Ana is really special.
“The relationship I’ve had with the Cash’s has been life changing and magical.
“The Circle be Unbroken.”