With twenty-six historic recordings under her belt, the acclaimed autobiography My Fears Are Gone, continuous concert appearances and lineage to one of music's most famous families, Joanne Cash has countless tales to tell. But more than artistic accolades, her slew of collaborations with brother Johnny Cash and having spent several years working at the historic House of Cash hit making factory, the singer/songwriter extraordinaire is driven by a deeper sense of eternal purpose, despite times of trial and seasons of straying.
"My main purpose in this music is to win the lost and uplift the downtrodden, Cash says of her brand new career-spanning compilation Gospel. "I don't think we have much time left before Christ comes again and I want to be everything I can be for Jesus. I've seen so many people try and build their kingdom in music, but I don't worry about any of that earthly gain. When you let God do it, that's when the real effectiveness happens."
And roots in faith are exactly how Joanne remembers growing up in the Cash family alongside Johnny, plus fellow siblings Reba, Jack, Tommy, Roy and Louise. Some of her earliest memories from their Dyess, Arkansas upbringing (the family later migrated to Nashville) were singing spiritual standards in the cotton fields while working in the steamy sun, after which the family would convene inside together for old time radio programs.
"Air conditioning was having the front door and back door open and we'd lay on the living room floor listening to gospel and country music," she reflects of real life scenes that would eventually be played out in the box office smash I Walk the Line. "After dinner, we'd gather at the upright piano and sing-a-long with our mother, who didn't know a note of music, but never missed a lick."
While the close knit family stayed close to the Lord, the tragic death of brother Jack during a mill accident sent shock waves through everyone's systems. Even though Joanne was very young at the time and couldn't understand the magnitude of his passing, fears began creeping into her life, which became the initial catalyst for a period of wandering.
"When I was nine-years-old, I walked the aisle at church and shook hands with the preacher in hopes of being able to go to heaven and see Jack," she explains. "But I walked away afraid that God didn't really want me. The fears of rejection grew even stronger around high school and I entered into a bad marriage shortly after I graduated."
Following a move to Germany for three years and having a child in the process, the confused newlywed turned to drugs and alcohol to ease the pain. In time, the family grew to 3 children, moved to Houston, Texas, though her personal pain and tumultuous family situation only worsened.
"I got to a point where I didn't know what to do and I got a call from Johnny saying 'I know you need some help, but just listen. I'm sending a moving van and you and the three children need to come home,'" she recalls. "I didn't realize it at the time, but I was not only coming home to my family, but also coming home to Jesus. And there we went leaving the ninety degree hot Houston weather and driving in a 1968 Ford Torino all the way to Nashville where it was freezing cold and snowing- which seldom happens down here!"
As she looked up to the glowing sky of white flakes, the snow served as a cleansing experience that led to her realizing God was indeed real. Come October 18th, 1970, Joanne gave her heart to Jesus at a small area church and began a brand new life. Aside from that spiritual revelation, she simultaneously found a musical calling while working at House of Cash, Johnny's famed recording studio, office space and musical museum.
"I learned so much about the music business and my desire to sing increased rapidly," offers a jovial Joanne. "I got involved in singing at church and then sang at the Grand Ole Opry on Fridays from 1972-1976 with Jimmy Rodgers Snow's Grand Ole Gospel Time."
During that era, Joanne also met the new love of her life, Dr. Harry Yates, whom she married on December 27, 1971. The couple soon dedicated themselves to full time music ministry, traveling with her two daughters in a car with their suitcases and instruments packed tightly in the trunk. The group soon graduated to a van, then motor home and finally a bus throughout their fifteen years of full time preaching and singing the gospel, but they felt called off the road come 1990.
"The Lord woke up my husband one day when we were touring throughout Canada and told him to cancel his meetings and head back to Nashville," she contends. "The Lord told him that my mother would pass away within a year and she did exactly nine months from that day. But it was a beautiful thing to go home because Mama and I got even closer. Just to be with her and hear her dreams and prayers for us was so inspiring."
The couple founded Nashville Cowboy Church just 6 months before her mother's untimely demise, which started with a mere six people in the Sweetwater Lounge of a local Holiday Inn. It gradually multiplied into two hundred attendees, then doubled to four hundred, after which it transferred to the sizable Texas Troubadour Theatre (adjacent to the Opryland Hotel), where Joanne continues to sing every Sunday.
Aside from area services, Cash hosts frequent concert engagements, such as a Tuesday night residency at the Wyndham Vacation Resort where she shares a variety of original and gospel/country covers, plus tidbits of the Cash family testimony. But her latest CD Gospel encompasses each of these elements, including several historic selections featuring Johnny's vocals, lyrics and/or narration.
The disc includes "Glory Glory," a bold expression of faith relating to Jack's death and the fact that all the siblings will again be united in heaven. Her husband wrote "Cotton, Popcorn, Peanuts and Jesus" (the basic fabric of what Joanne was raised on), while "Kicking Up Gravel" is an inspirational selection about a prostitute who undergoes the salvation experience. The album also features the classic covers "It Is Well With My Soul," "Life's Rail Way To Heaven," "Why Not Tonight?," "Will the Circle Be Unbroken?," "I Was There When It Happened," plus "I've Got Jesus In My Soul."
"Into the Blue" is a gripping tale of her husband's near death experience during a double by-pass surgery where he saw a glimpse of heaven, while the Johnny penned "Meet Me in Heaven" was one of the last songs he and Joanne sang together before his wife June Carter Cash made her heavenly passage. Johnny's 1979 standard "Welcome Back Jesus" is also included, as is the vintage church hymn "Let the Lower Lights Be Burning."
"Johnny always told the story about when our daddy was dying in a coma that the family was all holding hands and praying and singing that song," she exclaims about that latter track. "But he opened his eyes from that coma and started singing praises, ready to go on and be with the Lord."
Additional cornerstone cuts include "When He Comes", which features Johnny's spoken word introduction about writing the song in Jerusalem when standing in the Biblically outlined spot where Christ could quite possibly return. The last two tracks Joanne and Johnny ever recorded together included "Lower Lights" and "Softly and Tenderly," which is highlighted by Joanne's sweet disposition and Johnny's weakening but inspiring voice that signifies a genuine, holy-spirit directed moment.
"I'm amazed that at my age I still want to sing, but it's like therapy for me," she summarizes. "I'd say 2003 was one of the hardest years of my life since we lost four family members - our oldest sister Louise, June, Johnny and June's daughter Rosie- but it's like a prayer that lifts me up and it rests me when I'm tired. Johnny always helped me remember that and he was constantly encouraging. But there was one short phrase from Johnny that's always stuck with me and it's one I'll continue for as long as I'm here: 'Baby, just keep on singing!'"