Mike Rimmer talked at length to JOANNE CASH, country gospel singer and younger sister of The Man In Black.
The film Walk The Line gave us all a little glimpse into the world of the Cash family and the success of its most famous son Johnny. 2007 saw the release of 'Gospel' from the little girl of the family, Joanne. It would be very easy to get distracted by the hugeness of Johnny's personality and musical legacy. But Joanne has a testimony of her own.
The film gave a fairly accurate portrayal of the poverty of the Cash family. "There were seven of us," she remembers. "I'm next to the youngest of seven. Tommy and I are the last two that are left. Our family life in Arkansas on the cotton farm was very hard work. My daddy was a very hardworking Southern cotton farmer and all he knew in his life was hard work. He was raised from what we call the 'old school', where you literally had to dig life out of the dirt. You had to really work hard. The movie showed that and it was real. It showed that my daddy was a little irritable with Johnny but that was because daddy didn't understand how Johnny singing songs could earn him a living. But of course later on daddy knew that it was his calling to sing. But our life on the farm was hard."
Joanne continues, "We moved away from the farm into Dyess, Arkansas. It was the centre of a very large farming community and we called it Centre because that's exactly what it was. So we moved to the little town of Dyess. Every Saturday, after we'd picked cotton, daddy would have a wagonload of cotton and take it to the gin - that's where the seeds are separated from the cotton and the cotton is put in a big bale. And then after that we'd go to Wal-Mart."
She laughs at the memory, "When I was growing up on the farm I thought I wanted to be a city girl. And now that I'm grown I realise how very blessed I was on the farm. All of our meals consisted of things that my mother grew out of the garden; fresh vegetables, we grew cotton, popcorn, peanuts and we always had Jesus! That's the name of one of my songs on my CD because that's what I was raised on."
Another song on the album "Glory, Glory" is about the tragic death of her eldest brother Jack after an accident with a buzz saw, an incident from the Cash family that is also captured in the Walk The Line film. But what does she remember about it? "I was six years old and I remember it vividly as if it were yesterday. I went over a lot of things with Johnny. I was so young. But I remember when Jack got hurt and it was such a tragedy, not only for our family but for our whole community. He lived eight days and as he was going out to be with the Lord he saw angels in the hospital room, and then he saw Jesus. And that's how he went out to be with the Lord."
Was it obvious that Johnny was going to be a singer? "I always knew Johnny would sing," Joanne affirms. "He always said he would. It was just something that we knew. Every contest Johnny would enter when he was in high school he would always win 'em, every one of 'em. Young men's voices change about 16 or 17 years old and I remember the day that Johnny was standing outside mama's kitchen window and I was standing in the kitchen with mama and we heard this deeeep voice singing, 'Everybody's gonna have religion in glory.' Mama said, 'What's that?!' I said, 'I think that's J R.' That's his real name. And so she called him in and to make a long story short she took in some extra laundry to earn money to take him to a voice teacher. I was with her when they went to the voice teacher and Johnny sung some song and the voice teacher said, 'You can leave now.' And Johnny said, 'You mean I'm no good?' And she said, 'On the contrary. God's given you a gift I wouldn't dare touch.' And the rest is history. Johnny has just had that gift all of his life and mama called it 'the gift'. And we're carrying on that gift of music in our family."
"Tommy sings," she explains, "I sing and of course Johnny. And Johnny's daughter, Rosanne, is a tremendous singer. June's daughter, Carlene Carter, is a wonderful singer. John Carter, their only son, is a singer; has his own band. He's more pop/rock than he is country. And our daughter, Rhonda; Johnny said she had the best voice in the Cash family so we're proud of that! She's a lead singer in her own trio, Adoration."
The history of country music now sees the Cash and Carter families completely intertwined and the families' lives and music are wrapped up in the development of the genre. "That's right," agrees Joanne. "The Carter family was one of the originators of what we call down home country gospel music. June sang all of her life of course, and her sisters and her mother. Then her mother passed away, and then her two sisters, and then finally June. Music has been part of their lives and our lives. There's been songs that have gone out like a net from Cater family music and Cash family music. It's not what we do; it's what we are, you know? It's just a tradition that we're carrying on as long as we're here."
Faith was always very important in the Cash family as Joanne explains, "Well, without faith what do you have? You don't have anything. The Bible says, without faith it's impossible to please him. And without faith we don't have any peace. My faith in Jesus Christ is total and complete because I can't do anything without him. And Johnny was the same way. Johnny was a great man of faith. He loved the Lord with all his heart. I know personally, because every time I was with him, two or three times a week, he'd always want to talk about the Lord. And we did. We talked about the Scripture, about Jesus coming back. He was very convinced. Of course Jesus did come for him. But faith is everything. It's a part of all of our lives. Ever since I was a little girl my mother taught me about who Jesus was. I didn't really have the Lord in my life until in 1970, I became a truly saved, delivered, born-again Christian and 'old things are passed away behold all things have become new'. But faith has been there with us all along."
Joanne was brought up in a family where faith was important so what happened in 1970 that made all the difference? "Well, I knew about Jesus," she shares honestly. "In 1970 I had come out of a bad marriage. My life was messed up with the drugs and alcohol and all the bad things that goes along with that kind of life but on October 18th 1970, I got saved. Before that my life was messed up with drugs, alcohol and a bad marriage - and Johnny knew what I was. I was working for him at his office, the House of Cash, and I met a woman there who had invited me to church. Johnny had rented a little six-seater aeroplane to fly down to south Arkansas and back the day before for a Cash family reunion. On the way back we ran into a hailstorm. It was horrible. We didn't any of us think that we'd make it, and of course God landed the plane."
She continues, "The next day was Sunday and this woman had been inviting me to go to church. Well, I walked in that church that Sunday morning. I had promised God I'd give him my life if he'd save my life that day. I went down to an old-fashioned altar and the Lord met me there, and I had one of those wonderful transformation salvations. He totally forgave me and delivered me from the drugs and alcohol, and even the desire for them and I've been free ever since. That's where faith exploded in me, and I knew that I knew and I know that I know that I'm born-again. My faith is strong in the Lord and I believe he's coming soon.for all of us."
I observe that it's impossible to talk to her without talking about Johnny because he was so large in her life. His success transformed the family and brought all kinds of changes, not just financially. Can she remember what it was like when he was breaking through in the late-'50s? "Yes I can," she says. "Johnny had become what we call an overnight superstar. I remember when Cadillacs were a block long!" She laughs. "He drove his first Cadillac into our little farm driveway and said, 'Baby, you wanna go with me to a show?!' I said, 'Sure!' So I went with him, about an hour from Dyess, Arkansas up to Jonesboro where he was having a show. And on the way there he said, 'Now baby I'm gonna bring a guy out and he's gonna front the show and then they're gonna bring the star out.' I said, 'What's fronting a show?' And he said, 'That's where somebody comes out and warms a crowd up.' I said, 'Oh okay.' And I said, 'Well who's the star?' He said, 'Me.' I said, 'You're my brother!'"
She laughs at the memory and continues, "But we got there and he took me backstage and when this young man came out to front the show that was my first introduction to Elvis Presley. When Elvis came off and Johnny went on I went back and talked to Elvis for an hour and a half. About a year before Johnny passed away he said, 'You remember that show I took you to, when you met Elvis?' I said, 'Oh yeah I remember.' He said, 'You didn't watch me do my show!' I said, 'Well absolutely not. You're my brother. I went back and talked to Elvis!'
"I went to many of his shows. I sang with him many times at his concerts and he came to our church. We pastor a wonderful church here in Nashville called Nashville Cowboy Church. Johnny's been there and sang several times. He said, 'This is the REAL church.' It's a 'come as you are', nondenominational church. We get a lot of visitors on Sundays - a lot of tourists. People come in their jeans and their boots or their tennis shoes. We believe God looks at the heart not at what you wear. Johnny said, 'This is real. This is the way it should be!' My husband says from the platform, every Sunday he says, 'You come to Cowboy Church you're absolutely assured to get a hug!' We're a very friendly church. The Lord is friendly. The Lord loves us. The Lord puts hugs on us. We have so many returned visitors that come back every year from other countries. We had a whole bus load of tourists that had come from Ireland just a couple of Sundays ago, and they loved it! Sometimes we have people from other countries and we've had people visit from every State. My husband is a dynamic preacher and he preaches the Word of God. He gives an altar call and people stand to accept Christ."
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