Wildwood Flower's liner notes are reason enough to recommend the final recording by June Carter Cash, who died unexpectedly from complications of heart surgery in April. Penned by stepdaughter and songwriter Rosanne Cash, they eulogize Carter Cash as a uniquely talented and loving mother and musician who for nearly forty years nurtured the heart, art and stormy soul of one of country music's most storied performers. And though she was an accomplished Autoharpist, writer of both songs and books, and a descendant of country music's first family, Carter Cash will probably be best remembered as the wife of Johnny Cash -- something Rosanne doesn't think she'd mind one bit. "If being a wife were a corporation, June would have been the CEO. It was her most treasured role," she writes. "My daddy has lost his dearest companion, his musical counterpart, his soul mate and best friend."
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Yet Wildwood Flower shows us how much country music -- as a culture, a musical tradition, a lifestyle, even -- lost with Carter Cash's passing. Recorded over a six-month period, from late 2002 to March of this year, the album is an uncanny musical memorial to a life shaped equally by music and family -- two forces that, for Carter Cash, were inextricably linked from birth to death. Wildwood Flower abounds in world-wizened visions of songs she performed thousands of times over the past six decades -- first at age eight with the Carter Family, later with fellow Carter Sisters Helen and Anita, then as a solo artist. Most of the tunes were penned by uncle A.P. Carter -- including "Keep on the Sunny Side," "Storms Are on the Ocean" and "Sinking in the Ocean." But Carter Cash's individual spirit colors them all. The intro to "Big Yellow Peaches," the sole Carter Cash composition included here, is a humorous riff on Lee Marvin that suggests the wit and fearlessness of the woman who co-wrote "Ring of Fire" and once asked prisoners at Folsom Prison to look at her face, not her chest, while she performed. ("I talk with my lips," she is reported to have said.)
Wildwood Flower is as roughly rendered and scratchy as a historic photograph. Produced by son John Carter Cash, the album eschews smooth production in favor of familial intimacy. Some of the songs, including the spare, spooky "Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone," were taped in June and Johnny's bedroom in Hendersonville, Tennessee. Cameos by members of the ever-sprawling Carter/ Cash lineage -- including daughters Rosanne and Carlene Carter, granddaughter Tiffany Anastasia Lowe and, of course, Johnny, who sings backup on almost every track -- lend the album the casual feel of a living-room concert hedged in between Bible readings and bedtime. Backed throughout by Norman and Nancy Blake, who share duties on acoustic guitar, mandolin and cello, Carter Cash carries her years in her voice: It's craggy and often flat, but utterly sincere from the first note to the last. Carter Cash is gone, but Wildwood Flower helps ensure that the circle, indeed, remains intact.