One question Jewel was asked a lot while preparing for her role as June Carter Cash in the Lifetime TV movie Ring Of Fire was whether she was worried about being compared to Reese Witherspoon, who won an Oscar for her performance as the country star in the Johnny Cash biopic Walk The Line. Yet while both she and Witherspoon play the same woman in the two films, they are telling very different stories.
Ring Of Fire, which was directed by veteran filmmaker Allison Anders (Sugar Town, Grace Of My Heart, Gas, Food Lodging) and was based on the biography Anchored In Love, June’s story told by her son John Carter Cash, is very much from June Carter Cash’s perspective.
"A lot of people knew her as Johnny Cash’s wife and that’s why I was honored to be part of the film. She deserved to have her own story told," Jewel said during a discussion with Rolling Stone that also included Anders, co-star John Doe and John Carter Cash. "She was so famous before Johnny. He would’ve grown up listening to her and knowing who she was. She was very famous and his star rose much after hers."
As the director, Anders was aware that Johnny Cash’s considerable legacy casts a big shadow. "The incredible thing was that we got to tell the story from June’s point of view, which was not easy because Johnny Cash is so powerful as an icon and a legend," Anders said. "And so to sort of always twist that point of view, that it’s June, from his beautiful book and from the beautiful scripts that came forth from it, we were always very well aware – you see the poster, he’s looking at her, she’s not looking at him. And we had to constantly be aware of it."
In telling the familiar tale of what is arguably the most famous marriage in country music through new eyes, both cast and crew are hoping to get people to reexamine some iconic songs. For example, Jewel mentions the movie’s title track. "I never really identified with 'Ring Of Fire.' I always loved the song and it had this sort of masculine swagger to it, but it never hit my heart necessarily," she said. "When I did this scene in the movie where June is writing the song and you realize you’re writing from a woman’s perspective that was deeply religious, the drama was so much more inherent and I really connected to that song. The song really hit home for me in a real different way."
John Carter Cash also hopes people recognize his mother’s role in creating the track. "Everyone is aware of my father’s version. That’s what’s so important about what you did, Jewel, is you brought it back to the root of the songs and maybe the viewer will see for the first time this is written as a ballad," he said. "It was written as a gentle intimate love song."
A track that Anders developed a new appreciation for is "Wildwood Flower." "We were able to record that twice, we recorded it with the Carter family and then we recorded it with Jewel on the Grand Ole Opry," she said. "That melody and that song – I’m from Kentucky and my mother was just like, 'That song makes me ache, I can’t even explain it.' I knew what she meant and hearing it in the movie, it’s one of those where you’re like, 'I can’t believe I’m so lucky to be part of this, where we got to tell stories with these songs.'"
Another one of the stories concerns the Carter family patriarch, A.P. Carter, played by Doe. "You know a certain amount about the original Carter family and then you immerse yourself in where did it all come from, what was written, what was appropriated, what was kind of condensed and what kind of a person was A.P.? He was really odd, he was out on his own," Doe said. "You start figuring out where that stuff comes from, from a deeply religious upbringing, or all the time he spent walking the railroad tracks where he lived."
Jewel wondered what made Carter want to collect all of the songs, a question John Carter Cash was able to answer. "A.P.’s passion [was] in the music, because he saw this conglomeration of this music that was around him, he saw the church music, in the railroad yards he could hear the hobos sing songs and he saw this possibility that he could bring these songs together and share them with the world," John Carter Cash said. "A.P. Carter didn’t necessarily write all these songs – he did write some of these Carter family songs that we’re aware of – but if it wasn’t for him going and finding them all and putting them together in this huge catalogue of music of over 300 songs that the Carter family recorded, we wouldn’t have it."
To John Carter Cash, the role of A.P. Carter is tied directly to his mother’s significance. "June Carter was there as a young girl, and so my mother June knew this music her entire life and carried these Carter family songs to the entire world and there’s a lot unsung there," he said. "But June Carter, with the help of her later husband, would carry this music to the world and had so much to do with that. My mother’s an important historical figure because of that."
June Carter was more than just a musician to Jewel; she was a role model on many levels. "She was this modern woman before modern women existed. She was having a divorce, a single mom raising children and supporting a family, she was helping her family earn a living from a much younger age, in fact," Jewel said. "All of a sudden, when she met Johnny, she gave up this modern approach to life, if you will, and she resigned from the Opry and she says, 'I’m gonna make my marriage my priority.'"
Ring Of Fire premieres this Memorial Day, May 27th, at 9 p.m. on Lifetime.