Johnny's Angel

UPDATED 06/02/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 06/02/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT

There was hardly need to recount her singing, acting and song-writing accomplishments when some 2,000 country stars, friends and fans turned out at the First Baptist Church in Hendersonville, Tenn., on May 18 to commemorate June Carter Cash. For country's royalty—among them Trisha Yearwood, Emmylou Harris and Ricky Skaggs—Cash simply reigned as queen beside her husband of 35 years, Johnny Cash. So instead, as a frail Johnny, 71, listened from a pew, daughter Rosanne Cash, 48, recalled how her stepmother once answered the phone, spoke for 20 minutes, then hung up and said, "I just had the nicest conversation." "Who was it?" Rosanne asked. "She said, 'It was a wrong number.' That was June."

The memorial service was more an upbeat celebration of Cash's 73 years, honoring the three-time Grammy winner who once shopped for clothes with Elvis when they toured the South together in the '50s. A performer since childhood with the celebrated Carter Family, she allowed her career to take a backseat for decades to attend to Johnny as he battled amphetamine addiction and, in recent years, serious illness. "Absolutely nobody ever imagined she would die before Johnny," says artist manager Merle Kilgore, with whom she cowrote Johnny's hit about forbidden love, "Ring of Fire," when both singers were married to other people.

"We're soulmates, friends and lovers and everything else that makes a happy marriage," Johnny once told PEOPLE. "It would be awfully hard to try to live without her." Her death on May 15, following complications from heart-valve surgery two years after receiving a pacemaker, marked both the passing of a legend and the end of a fabled romance. Says Kris Kristofferson: "They were a true love story."

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