Charlene Boyd on the new Scottish stage show honouring country music queen June Carter Cash
When Charlene Boyd was asked by a drama school lecturer to join a new band it led her down the road of something of a double life in the arts.
For well over a decade she has balanced gigs and festival appearances with a Johnny Cash tribute act with an acting career on stage and screen.
Now she has brought the two worlds together to create a debut stage show inspired by her growing fascination with the life and legacy of June Carter Cash, the multi award-winning country singer and musician who was married to Johnny Cash.
Her “play with music,” which she began writing at home during the pandemic lockdown, is to get a world premiere at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in after being snapped up by the National Theatre of Scotland.
The Lanarkshire actress and singer travelled to Nashville and the Appalachian mountains on the trail of June’s story, interviewing surviving friends and family, as well as the current generation of country singers following in her footsteps.
When “June Carter Cash: The Woman, Her Music and Me” premieres in Edinburgh in August and then tours around Scotland, Boyd will step into the limelight in a set inspired by Nashville's famous Bluebird Cafe.
However it will also explore the connections she has felt between June’s story and her own life as a working class actress and singer bringing up two children.
Boyd said: “I was brought up on country music thanks to my mum. She was a single parent and sang in a band, mainly in pubs and clubs in Glasgow, as her job.
"She sang a lot of country songs. I got really into them from a very young age. I just loved the stories in them. At talent shows, I was the odd kid who would sing a country song when everyone else was into pop.
"When we were doing musical theatre on my drama course I’d pick a Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton or Bob Dylan song to sing. The stories really spoke to me.
“One of my drama lecturers at Coatbridge College approached me as he was putting a country-rock band together and asked if I was interested in singing the ‘lady backing vocals,’ as he put it!
“Unknown to me, the part in the band was to be June Carter Cash. I fell down a total rabbit hole of Johnny Cash’s music. I’ve been in that band, Jericho Hill, for 13 years now. We’ve played all over the UK and the guys in the band have become like family to me.”
Boyd’s interest in June Carter Cash’s life story emerged during the pandemic lockdown, when her TV and theatre work was suddenly halted.
“I’d always been on tour and running around – my life was really busy as a self-employed actor and a single mum with two kids.
“I was forced to stay at home and was home-schooling. I thought I was losing my mind. I really needed something to do and I’d never written a play before.
“Since I played June in the band I thought I’d try to write a jukebox musical about her for A Play, A Pie and A Pint at Oran Mor.
“I got a wee bit of money from Creative Scotland to develop the idea and started doing some digging. The whole thing has just grown arms and legs since then.”
Boyd’s show will recall the career of June, who was born into a family of country singers who made regular TV and radio appearances. She enjoyed huge success singing with her family, as a solo artist, and performing and recording with Johnny Cash.
June, who played guitar, banjo, harmonica, and autoharp, won five Grammy Awards for her albums, and was also an accomplished actor, dancer and comic.
Boyd said: “I ended up really connecting with a lot of people in Nashville on Zoom. It was maybe because the world had stopped at that point, but a lot of people were really open to having conversations.
"I went on a massive journey exploring who June was as an artist and mother, who she was before Johnny, right back to the Appalachian roots of The Carter Family.
“I made a little documentary out of the zoom calls and sent it around all the artistic directors I know to get a bit of feedback for Creative Scotland. So many of them said they wanted to talk to me about the project. I couldn’t believe it. I was quite happy with it existing in my head.”
Boyd’s play is being co-produced by NTS and Grid Iron, the Edinburgh-based theatre company she worked with on its shows Barflies, Letters Home and The Devil’s Larder.
Boyd says her own show is shaping up to be very different to the one she originally envisaged in lockdown.
Boyd said: “The research trip was the most incredible experience. I met all the people I’d already connected with and met some of June’s family.
"When I came back, the play was no longer a jukebox musical. It became about my own June and the journey I had gone on with her.
“I’ve actually tried to pull out of it so many times because of imposter syndrome. feeling that I’m not good enough and asking myself why I am telling her story as I’m not American.
"But it’s just kept going and growing with the encouragement of other people.
“I’ve also gone on such an incredible journey so far with June and she’s such an inspiration.
"I feel the people in Nashville are behind me and want me to celebrate the truth of June and put her out there as an artist, a woman and a mother.
"That really resonates with me right now as I juggle my life, trying to stay in the arts as a parent. It’s impossible for so many people at times. So many of my female friends have had to leave.
“Audiences will certainly learn a lot more about June, but the show is also about resilience, humanity, your dreams, how to cope and how to keep going.”
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