Cash and Carter Riders in the Sky

Writer Joseph J. Airdo

Photography Courtesy of the Musical Instrument Museum

In the song “Man in Black,” Johnny Cash explains that his trademark, all-black stage wardrobe is a symbol for many oppressed people. The legendary musician wore black for the poor and beaten down, for prisoners who had long paid for their crimes, and for those who had never heard or read of the blessings in the Bible.

In other words, Johnny Cash stood for something. And he used his talent and the influence he acquired through becoming one of the best-selling music artists of all time—with more than 90 million records sold worldwide—to make a difference in the lives of the American people.

Johnny Cash is responsible for more than just the countless hits he produced over the course of his storied career, which included “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Ring of Fire” and “I Walk the Line,” as well as “It Ain’t Me Babe” and “Jackson”—duets that he sang with his eventual wife June Carter, who was a distinguished musician in her own right.

The Musical Instrument Museum will celebrate the music and the legacies of Johnny Cash and June Carter 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. June 22 and 23. The event coincides with what would have been June Carter’s 90th birthday.

The weekend celebration is part of a series in which the museum commemorates influential and inspiring artists who are known as icons of the musical world. The programs aim to spotlight artists from the museum’s galleries and showcase them through engaging activities such as film screenings, musical performances and curator talks.

“MIM is honored to present this special signature event commemorating one of America’s most beloved musical couples,” says public programs manager Randi Ringes. “Throughout the weekend, we will offer activities for the whole family highlighting the music, stories and instruments associated with these two iconic musicians.”

Rich Walter, who serves as the Musical Instrument Museum’s curator for the United States, Canada and Europe, appreciates the opportunity to share with visitors an expanded and deeper view of the instruments that Johnny Cash and June Carter used to create their legendary careers. 

“These are not only very fine instruments and have a lot of details for people to look at and appreciate from their craftsmanship and so on, but they represent something quite significant,” Walter adds. “The stories of Johnny Cash, June Carter and the Carter Family are really powerful in the larger narrative of American music.”

Can the Circle Be Unbroken

The items that the Musical Instrument Museum will be highlighting during the event include one of June Carter’s personal autoharps, which was hand-built by George Orthey. Autoharps are zither instruments that feature a series of chord bars attached to dampers that, when pressed, mute all of the strings other than those that form the desired chord.

“This particular instrument is really fun to see close-up because it redefines how high-quality and well-built an autoharp can be,” Walter says. “There are some really nice visual construction details to it that distinguish it as a very high-quality autoharp. It has what we would call a herringbone border on the top of it that is more typically seen on older Martin guitars.”

Walter says that the autoharp’s significance is amplified by the fact that the instrument was also played by June Carter’s mother, Maybelle Carter, who was an original member of the Carter Family, an American folk music group who participated in a 1927 recording session that is considered to be the flashpoint of commercial American country music.

“There is a real sense of lineage and continuity from the Carter family tree keeping that type of instrument and those sounds in the audience’s ears,” Walter explains. “To have something that June Carter played that is an extension of what her mom’s generation played and really cemented the legacy of the autoharp in American music is a pretty cool thing.”

Arizona Autoharp Club historians, including the organization’s founder, Barbara Giamolvo, will lead a participatory sing-a-long activity during the event, as well as offer a music workshop for families. Visitors of all ages will be able to learn the basics of playing the instrument on full-sized and special child-sized autoharps.

Long-Legged Guitar Pickin’ Man

Two of Johnny Cash’s guitars will receive the star treatment during the event, the first of which is a Martin Dreadnought guitar that is No. 1 in a limited edition signature model series. The D-42JC prototype features several visual cues that immediately signify the musician after whom it was designed.

“In addition to having a very distinctive black finish, there is a lot of pearl ornamentation around the surface of the guitar as well as inlaid stars and a copy of Johnny Cash’s autograph on the fingerboard,” Walter says.

Johnny Cash’s Martin 5-18, a smaller-sized guitar from 1935, will also be highlighted. Randy Wood, a well-known luthier who worked on instruments for a number of Nashville stars, customized the guitar with an acorn motif on the fingerboard in pearl inlay. This matches visually with embroidered details on one of Johnny Cash’s iconic black suits, which will also be on display during the event.

“Acorns and oak trees represent strength, stability and other personal traits that you would associate with a long-lasting career,” Walter says. “These symbols appealed to Johnny Cash and were a subtle part of what he integrated into his wardrobe and instruments.”

One Piece at a Time

The instruments themselves are just the beginning, as the museum will also host a concert by Ahwatukee singer/songwriter Blaine Long, a contestant from Season 11 of NBC’s talent competition “The Voice.” Long will bring the classic music to life by performing some of Johnny Cash and June Carter’s songs, as well as some of his own.

This summer marks the 50th anniversary of the premiere of “The Johnny Cash Show,” a variety television series that ran June 7, 1969, through March 31, 1971, on ABC. In honor of that special occasion, the Musical Instrument Museum will screen several episodes of the show in its theater during the event.

Thomas Grant Richardson, former curator of education at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum in Bristol, Tenn., will also be on hand during the event to share insight into the music of Johnny Cash and June Carter, as well as the legacy of the Carter Family.

Walter believes that June Carter and the Carter Family represent an ongoing and indelible stamp on American music.

“The Carter Family could not be more important to the story of American music, and especially country music,” Walter says. “They continue to be the source material for people today. From the 1920s, they recorded a canon of songs that have been inspirational to virtually every country artist since then—generation after generation—so it is impossible to overstate the influence that the Carter Family has had in songwriting and performance.”

Moreover, Walter believes that Johnny Cash’s cultural significance extends far beyond his music. The curator says that the musician was a spokesperson for people across the U.S., representing the voice of the common American and standing behind that throughout his entire career.

“He fought through his personal challenges and was a true individual who was fairly uncompromising in how he represented his own beliefs, his own voice and his own sense of identity in the world,” Walter says. “He did that unapologetically and was such a compelling performer—to say nothing of his television shows, which introduced a lot of other fantastic performers to huge audiences.”

From rockabilly through outlaw country and beyond, most American music has at least a little thread of Johnny Cash in it. The Musical Instrument Museum’s celebration will enlighten fans of the musician with a different dimension of his career and expose a new generation to an artist who has shaped American culture in a variety of ways.

“On his own merits, Johnny Cash has been a hugely important and influential figure in American music,” Walter says. “His songs are legendary and have been inspirational to subsequent generations of people looking to a musician who can also be an extraordinarily strong character in the music industry.”

Musical Icons: Johnny Cash and June Carter

June 22 and 23 | 9 a.m.–5 p.m. | Musical Instrument Museum | 4725 E. Mayo Blvd., Phoenix | $20 | 480-478-6000 |

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