June 23

Why today? In honor of what would have been June Carter Cash’s 81st birthday, let’s go back to the mid-1950s for a sampling of the comedy and music that made her the sweetheart of the Grand Ole Opry.

About the clip: Undated episode of the syndicated program Stars of the Grand Ole Opry, filmed in color at the Bradley studio complex in Nashville.

Country fans owe producer Al Gannaway big time. He came to Nashville as television was beginning to make inroads, and the industry was concerned about the upstart Ozark Jubilee telecast in Springfield, Mo. Gannaway had the foresight to shoot his films not only on 35 mm feature stock but in color. It’s the best record we have of how the Opry looked and sounded back then.

June Carter was a frequent guest on those half-hour programs, often paired (as here) with her then-husband, Carl Smith. The color episodes of this show were filmed from February 1955 through 1956, which means that the couple’s marriage (which ended in ’56) was breaking up during the run of filming. My guess is this appearance is from late in that period, so conceiveably they were already separated, and perhaps divorced. Some of the ad-libs during their comedy routine seem to back that up.

She was so funny, especially to someone like me who enjoys corny country humor. But it doesn’t require rural tastes to appreciate her talent. One such person who did was stage and film director Elia Kazan, who’d seen her at the Opry in 1955 and encouraged her to study acting. So she went to New York and worked under Sanford Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse.

June Carter is so completely associated with her third husband and true soulmate, Johnny Cash, that it’s really illuminating to see her in action before they met. Who knows what might have been for her if she’d left Nashville and country music behind to persue a career on stage and screen …