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Jewel enters June Carter Cash's stage

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Jewel may have come from the Lilith Fair generation of female singers and songwriters, but her latest move pays homage to a much earlier era of guitar-playing troubadours.

The 39-year-old is taking on the role of June Carter Cash in "Ring of Fire," a Lifetime movie scheduled to premiere Monday. The film, directed by Allison Anders, throws the spotlight squarely on the woman casual music fans may know only as Johnny Cash's wife.

It's no easy task since Jewel is following in the footsteps of Reese Witherspoon, who won an Oscar for lead actress in the 2005 biopic "Walk the Line."

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"I knew this was a big undertaking," Jewel said from her home in Stephenville, Texas. "I mean, Reese won an Oscar for playing June. That set a real high mark. But this movie isn't the Johnny-and-June love story like 'Walk the Line.' This is June's story. I'd seen a bunch of scripts for different roles, but not any that were really interesting to me. When I read this one, I knew it was a chance to play a big, dynamic, dramatic part."

"Ring of Fire" traces Carter's life starting out as the daughter of "Mother" Maybelle Carter, one third of the original Carter Family. The group was widely celebrated as "the First Family of Country Music." Along with Maybelle's brother, A.P. Carter, and his wife, Sara, the Carter Family were country music's first superstars, selling millions of 78 rpm recordings in the late 1920s and early 1930s during the height of the Great Depression.

Jewel, who was born Jewel Kilcher in Utah, plays June as a teenager up until her death in 2004 at age 73. There's a lot of ground to cover — from Carter's childhood traveling from town to town, radio station to radio station singing with her family to emerging as a young solo star to becoming the wife of not one, but two major country stars (her first marriage was to singer Carl Smith).

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The film is based on "Anchored in Love: An Intimate Portrait of June Carter Cash," the 2007 memoir written by Johnny and June's only child, musician and author John Carter Cash.

For the film, Jewel was fitted with prosthetic dentures and traded her signature blond hair for Carter's walnut brown shade. She also studied film and video of Carter's singing style to approximate her physicality when she was onstage.

"I really wanted to make sure I transformed into her," Jewel said. "I didn't want people seeing it and wondering, 'Is that Jewel — is she wearing a wig?' I wanted people to forget who I was."

As for singing like Carter, who had a signature vocal quaver that was largely foreign to Jewel, she said the music came easily. "I couldn't sing like myself, my manners onstage are very different from June's. She would stomp her feet; I'm much more ethereal. I had to use a different tone of voice, a different vibrato … a more nasally tone. I was acting the whole time I was singing."

Director Anders had been attached to a film project about Johnny and June about a decade ago, before "Walk the Line" came along, but when that film surfaced with a powerhouse cast, Anders' project fell by the wayside. But she was thrilled when another chance cropped up to use the research she'd done into the Carter-Cash story.

"Johnny Cash is a very powerful icon," Anders said in a separate interview. "To constantly have to turn the camera away from him because, nope, we're not telling Johnny's story, we're telling June's story, it made it really unique for everyone watching it. You get to see what a hand she had in the creation of herself."

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Punk rock and roots music aficionados should take special pleasure in the appearance of X bassist, singer and songwriter John Doe as A.P. Carter, the man who collected so many of the traditional songs the Carter Family recorded and brought them to the world.

"He was an odd, odd person from what everybody said," said Doe, who has explored his passion for rootsier sounds in the X-spinoff band the Knitters. "A.P. Carter was a one of a kind and very strange. I think there's something to be said for genius having a price. There is something, a few people I've met — like Jerry Lee [Lewis] — they're different, really not like us regular folks."

Although June has long been credited for saving Cash's life during the worst depths of his alcohol and drug dependency in the 1960s and '70s, viewing her simply as the emotional and spiritual rock for one of the titans of 20th century popular music diminishes the reality of what she went through.

"I had talked to addiction specialists and got a lot of insights from people who were drug addicts," Jewel said. "The physical toll that takes on a family member — not knowing when the other shoe's going to drop, the constant trepidation of when it's going to hit the fan, the anxiety — it's like living in a minefield. It was a very dark time. But she had tremendous love for him, and she really was the reason he survived. He credited her for saving his life.

"It was a real commitment to her," she said. "One of the things I learned was that she had worked through both of her first two marriages before she married Johnny. They were together when he had gotten sober for the first time, and a therapist told her, 'Now that he's better, what are you going to do about your problem?' He was talking about her independence, and the effect that had had on her family life.

"She actually wrote a resignation letter to the Grand Ole Opry, quit pursuing her own music and comedy so she could dedicate herself to her marriage," Jewel said. "She did not want this one to fail, and she decided she would sacrifice anything to make that a priority. She said that in her life, God was first, her marriage was second and her children came third, and that's what she lived by. As modern as she was in many ways, she was old-fashioned about that. But she never regretted it and never once thought twice about it."

Anders hopes her film helps viewers discover the depth of Carter's talent as a singer, instrumentalist and songwriter. Among the many songs she co-wrote is the one from which the movie takes its title.

"What I would love to see is that she get the credit she deserves as an amazing talent and amazing woman on her own terms," Anders said. "Not just as a part of the Carter Family, not just as the wife of Johnny Cash. She really created herself in many ways. I think of her as just a very quietly empowered woman."

Anders quickly caught herself, and added with a chuckle, "I don't think anyone would ever accuse her of being quiet June Carter. But it was a quiet strength she had. This is an empowered woman, and she empowered herself."

randy.lewis@latimes.com

Twitter: @RandyLewis2

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'Ring of Fire'

Where: Lifetime

When: 9 p.m. Monday

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)

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