On July 7, 1956, Johnny Cash walked onto the Grand Ole Opry’s stage for the first time, armed with an acoustic guitar, his Tennessee Two bandmates and his soon-to-be iconic black suit. “I Walk the Line” had been released two months earlier, giving Cash one of the biggest hits of the summer. He was a country singer who appealed to mainstream fans, too, a crossover star at a time when few singers apart from Elvis Presley could straddle the country/pop divide. It was the perfect time to make his Grand Ole Opry debut.
After an introduction from country crooner Carl Smith, Cash and company kicked into a three-song set. The stage setup was elaborate, with the bandmates sitting on stools in a makeshift saloon. In the foreground, a group of good ol’ boys huddled around a table, pretending to play cards. Everyone was dressed in cowboy hats and bright suits… apart from Cash, lead guitarist Luther Perkins and bassist Marshall Grant, whose black attire and stark, lonesome twang sliced through the pageantry of the Grand Ole Opry like a knife.
The real action happened backstage, though. That’s where Cash first bumped into Carl Smith’s wife, June Carter, who was hurriedly tuning up her guitar before walking onstage. Carter, who’d recently wrapped up a tour with Elvis Presley, had become a fan of Cash’s music on the road, where Elvis reportedly played “Cry! Cry! Cry!” on jukeboxes across the South. Meanwhile, Cash had grown up listening to live performances from Mother Maybelle & the Carter Sisters — whose lineup included a young June — on the radio. That Saturday night in 1956, both singers happy introduced themselves, with Cash saying, “I’ve always wanted to meet you,” and Carter replying with, “I feel like I know you already.”
“I can’t remember anything else we talked about, except his eyes,” June Carter wrote in the liner notes of Cash’s 2000 box set, Love, God, Murder. “Those black eyes that shone like agates… He had a command of his performance that I had never before. Just a guitar and a bass and a gentle kind of presence that made not only me, but whole audiences become his followers.”
Smith and Carter divorced later that year, and Carter eventually joined Cash on the road, where the two sang together on hit songs like “Jackson.” They married in 1968, a dozen years after their backstage meeting at the Grand Ole Opry, and remained together until their deaths in the early 2000s.