In some respects, it would've been a shocking emotional blow if June Carter Cash's farewell album -- recorded just months before her May death -- wasn't the masterpiece it is. After all, it comes with a Hall of Fame-ish studio lineup: the impeccable Norman and Nancy Blake, Marty Stuart, Dennis Crouch, and assorted Cashes and Carters. And a track list comprised largely of A.P. Carter classics from the dawn of what we call "country" music.
But, just as you'd hope, these things are overshadowed by the raw beauty and emotive depth of June Carter Cash's singing. This is no "time hasn't touched that voice" soliloquy: Knowing nothing but Wildwood Flower, you'd know Cash was dying. But you'd also know that she held little fear of that journey. In "Storms Are On The Ocean," she sings, "I'm going away to leave you love" with more a sense of wonderment than melancholy. And there's palpable joy in "Temptation," on which she and Johnny are downright randy in their silly, familiar duet.
The one exception is A.P. Carter's "Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone," perhaps the song on which Cash's singing is at its most tangibly honest about the fierceness of living and the quiet nearness of life's end. Cash drags the song's time out, as if hanging on just long enough for an answer.
In the notes, stepdaughter Rosanne Cash writes that "the world which created June Carter Cash no longer exists," and in some few ways, it's apparent that that's a good thing. June's voice is thickly belabored and honestly worn -- though perhaps more by the river-rushing weight of history than by some romanticized pain and Appalachian suffering. It reminds us of how little history we each carry inside us in the 21st century: A few years, sometimes a few minutes, beyond our hard drives and palm pilots. At a concert with Johnny nearly ten years ago, June Carter Cash complained of feeling old: A chronological history of country music had been on PBS, and it struck her that "I was the only person who appeared in all three episodes."
Where does the weight of that history go now? In "Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone," Cash sings of absence: "When these footsteps ne'er are heard." The beauty of Cash's singing -- indeed, of her entire tradition of song -- is that it's of a time and a people for whom absence resounds as loudly as presence. With Wildwood Flower, Cash created one final testament to that tall-but-quiet presence: a voice whose absence will perhaps be as palpable as its presence was, through all of country music's history.