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Rubenstein Center Scholarship

A Country Evening in the East Room

Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash Play the White House

  • Matthew Costello Chief Education Officer, The Marlyne Sexton Chair in White House History, Director of the David M. Rubenstein National Center for White House History

President Richard Nixon and First Lady Patricia Nixon instituted many changes and improvements to the White House during their time in Washington, D.C. The Nixons had a major outdoor lighting system installed to illuminate the Executive Mansion at night; the first lady oversaw several room restoration projects and a dramatic expansion of the White House collection; and the president turned the indoor swimming pool into the modern-day White House Press Room. The Nixons also revamped the White House entertainment scene, hosting a wide variety of musicians and performers such as Duke Ellington, Red Skelton, Frank Sinatra, and Merle Haggard. But one of the biggest duos to grace the East Room stage was Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, who performed for the president and his guests on April 17, 1970.

President Richard Nixon, First Lady Patricia Nixon, June Carter Cash, and Johnny Cash on stage after the Cashs' "Evening at the White House" Concert Performance in the East Room, April 17, 1970.

Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

The Cashs' were first announced as the headliners for the president and first lady’s “Evening at the White House” concert series in March 1970.1 Controversy immediately swirled around the event as journalists reported that the president’s staff had requested Cash to play two songs—Guy Drake’s “Welfare Cadillac” and Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee.” Critics argued that these tunes were politically-charged anthems that vilified citizens on government assistance and mischaracterized anti-war protesters as rampant drug users.2 Addressing the gaffe in his opening remarks, President Nixon joked, “I’m not an expert on his music…I understand he owns a Cadillac but he won’t sing about Cadillacs.”3 While Cash was actually a vocal supporter of President Nixon and his policies, he informed the White House beforehand that he neither knew those songs nor had the time to learn them. He did, however, oblige the president’s request for “A Boy Named Sue,” opening the night with his biggest hit of 1969 after he crooned his famous line to the crowd, “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.”

Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash visit President Gerald R. Ford in the Oval Office, November 21, 1975.

Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum /NARA

Dressed in “a black frock coat, black tight fitting trousers, winged collar and pussy-cat bow—all of which he designed himself,” Johnny Cash’s swagger and baritone voice commanded the attention of over 200 guests. In addition to senators and congressmen from many southern states, members of the Cash and Carter families also enjoyed the performance. “Daddy, you remember this,” Cash said, pointing toward his father Ray Cash.4 He then launched into “Five Feet High and Rising,” a melody describing the terrible flood of 1937 in Mississippi County, Arkansas. Cash received the loudest applause for his song “What Is Truth.” This tune touched on some of the major issues facing America at that time such as war, drug use, generational and cultural differences, and the mistreatment of people because of appearance or political perspective.

Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash, and their seven-year-old son John Carter Cash meeting President Jimmy Carter in the Oval Office on June 14, 1977.

Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

Beside the Man in Black stood June Carter Cash, Johnny’s marital and musical partner. Four weeks earlier June had given birth to their son, John Carter Cash. Deciding to poke fun of her appearance June moved her hands down her gown and said to her husband, “This is the top part, this is the bottom part, in case you’ve forgotten.” The crowd roiled with laughter, but President Nixon “did not crack a smile, and Mrs. Nixon smiled only faintly.” Seeing their uncomfortable reaction June commented, “I don’t believe I should have said that.”5 As the evening rolled on, the Cashs’ and their band played twelve songs including, “Jesus Was a Carpenter,” and “He Turned the Water into Wine.” As the concert drew to a close, Johnny Cash thanked the president and first lady for their hospitality and offered the following: “We pray, Mr. President, that you can end this war in Vietnam sooner than you hope or think it can be done, and we hope and pray that our boys will be back home and there will soon be peace in our mountains and valleys.”6

President Ronald Reagan meets with Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash in the Oval Office study on May 20, 1988.

Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum /NARA

The Cashs’ performance in the East Room was the first of many White House visits by the Cash family. Johnny and June returned to the Nixon White House on July 26, 1972. Johnny testified earlier that day before the Subcommittee on National Penitentiaries in support of Tennessee Senator William E. Brock’s proposed legislation for prison rehabilitation reform; he later accompanied Senator Brock to the Oval Office, where he spoke with President Nixon for fifteen minutes.7 Prior to their visit on November 21, 1975, Johnny wrote President Gerald Ford and commended his decision to pardon former President Nixon while offering amnesty to those who opposed serving in Vietnam.8 The Cashs’ met with President Jimmy Carter on June 14, 1977, and were acknowledged in his speech for the Help through Industry Retraining and Employment (HIRE) program for veterans.9 President Carter claimed June as a distant cousin of his family and Johnny a close friend. “I’ve very proud of his friendship,” noted President Carter. The Cashs’ also visited President Ronald Reagan on May 20, 1988.10

President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush with 2001 National Medal of Arts recipient Johnny Cash. Cash received the honor on April 22, 2002, at Constitution Hall.

George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum /NARA

In 1996, Johnny—along with Edward Albee, Benny Carter, Jack Lemmon, and Maria Tallchief—were named recipients for Kennedy Center Honors. President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton hosted a grand reception for the honorees and their families in the East Room. The president spoke glowingly of Cash and his family: “With his wife, the very gifted June Carter Cash, and family often by his side, he has traveled all over the world to give a voice to the feelings of farmers and workers, prisoners and lovers. From the heartland of America, he's sung for the people who are the heart of America…Johnny Cash, you have our applause, our admiration, and we have your records.”11 In 2002, Cash was presented with the National Medal of Arts from President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush, the highest honor any American artist can receive from the United States government. While the event took place at nearby Constitution Hall and not the White House, it capped an incredible country music career that spanned over forty years and ten presidential administrations.12