Country Legend June Carter Cash Dies

05/16/2003 at 07:42 AM EDT

With her husband of 35 years, Johnny Cash, at her side, country music giant June Carter Cash, 73, died in a Nashville hospital Thursday of complications from heart surgery, her manager told the Associated Press.

Other family members were also with her at the end, he said.

A legend in her own right, Carter Cash, a Grammy-winning scion of one of country music's pioneering families (the Carter Family), had been critically ill after May 7 surgery to replace a heart valve.

Johnny Cash, 71, who has had years of his own health setbacks, asked fans to pray for his wife in a statement earlier this week.

Speaking of the singer, songwriter, musician, actress and author, Ed Benson, executive director of the Country Music Association, told AP: "People talk about Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette when it comes to pioneering women in country music. But they very seldom mention June, somewhat because she got married to Johnny Cash."

He added, "I think people should think of her more often when they think of the pioneering women in country music."

June Carter Cash performed with her husband on record and on stage, and was the co-writer of his 1963 hit "Ring of Fire," which was about her falling in love with him. In his 1997 autobiography, Johnny Cash described how June stood by his side as he battled to overcome a longtime abuse of amphetamines.

"June said she knew me -- knew the kernel of me, deep inside, beneath the drugs and deceit and despair and anger and selfishness, and knew my loneliness," he wrote. "She said she could help me. ... If she found my pills, she flushed them down the toilet. And find them she did; she searched for them, relentlessly."

Longtime friend Kris Kristofferson said the couple have "been partners in life for as long as I've known them -- always in love, and always there for each other. I know how much she means to him. It's the hardest thing he'll ever have to face."

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