Forget the eclipse, here’s the real ‘Ring of Fire’

I know what you’re thinking as you’re turning through this newspaper: “Man, what this edition of The Reporter needs is a column combining astronomy and country music.”

Well, I’ll try.

If we lived about 450 miles further northwest, about Muleshoe or so, somewhere between Lubbock and Clovis, we could have witnessed a rare and spectacular event Sunday.

An annular eclipse of the sun.

That’s like a total solar eclipse, the moon coming directly between the sun and the earth as seen from a narrow path on the earth, but with one big difference.

A n annular eclipse occurs when the moon is at the point of its orbit far enough away from earth—orbits aren’t perfect circles— that the moon doesn’t quite cover up the sun.

So instead of a totally dark disc up in the sky you get a dark disk surrounded by a circle of very bright sun.

That kind of circle is called an “annulus” in Latin, rather unfortunately because it could lead you to think the eclipse happens once a year.

It’s also called something in English. It’s called a “ring of fire.” Did anybody besides me just hear mariachi trumpets? Oh come on, that’s what lots of us hear in our mind’s internal music machine every time the phrase “ring of fire” comes up.

“Ring of Fire,” of course, was the mega-hit song by the legendary, late, great Johnny Cash.

It’s one of those rare songs that just explode in your head, tunes you instantly recognize from the first few notes.

Truth be told, it sort of fits in with the cosmic-fiery-ringaround the-sun theme because just who wrote the song, and how it came to be recorded, are shrouded in mystery, controversy and more than a little mysticism.

It’s usually credited to Cash and June Carter, who later became his wife, and it’s certainly linked with their complex relationship.

June was a member of the almost mythical Carter Family, who practically invented what we now call country music, and some writers claim she first saw the phrase “love is like a burning ring of fire” in one of her famous uncle, A. P. Carter’s, books of old English poetry.

In 1962 what remained of the Carter family—June, mom Maybelle and sister Anita—went on tour with Johnny Cash.

The more-or-less official story goes that during that tour June, and band member Merle Kilgore, wrote “Ring of Fire.”

Years later, Kilgore would be the best man at Johnny and June’s wedding.

A different version turns up in the movie “Walk the Line,” the acclaimed 2005 film about the man in black.

In that film, June is depicted as virtually writing the song in her head while driving home, agonizing over feelings about Cash, his alcoholism and drug addiction.

However, that version is challenged by Vivian Liberto, Cash’s first wife, in her autobiography.

She claimed Cash wrote the song all by himself, then gave it to June because he felt sorry for her. Of course, you might not expect Vivian Liberto to have many warm, fuzzy feelings in her heart for June Carter.

Whoever wrote it, “Ring of Fire” was recorded in early 1963 by, who else..........Anita Carter.

Anita Carter?

Yep, June’s sister cut it on her album “Folk Songs Old and New,” and it was released as a single.

It was low, very low, on the charts for several months.

Now, here’s where things get really weird.

While Anita’s song was out there, Johnny Cash claimed—and he told this story numerous times and it was always the same—he had a dream in which he heard “Ring of Fire” with trumpets.

“ Tr umpets, John? ” people would scratch their heads. “Like Harry James?”

“No,” Cash would thunder. “Mexican trumpets! Mariachi trumpets!”

At the time trumpets were viewed as something close to radioactive in country music.

Cash told Anita Carter he’d give her version six months and if it didn’t catch on, he’d hire mariachi trumpeters and record it his way.

And that’s what happened.

It was the biggest hit Johnny Cash ever had, and he had plenty and they were very big.

It sold over a million copies and, 50 years later in the Internet era, has been downloaded (legally) 1.5 million times.

It was No. 4 on CMT’s top 100 country songs of all time, in the top 100 of Rolling Stone’s top 500 songs of all time.

Everyone from Dwight Yoakum to Frank Zappa recorded it, but nobody ever sang it like you know who.

I guess I’m glad I didn’t see the eclipse. I know I would have heard trumpets and it might have been a little scary.

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2012-05-24 digital edition

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