Belfast Telegraph

Friday 29 August 2014

My brother, the legendary Cash

Gospel singer Joanne Cash, little sister of country music legend Johnny Cash, speaks to Gráinne McCarry about her life with her superstar brother

The Man In Black, monikered because of his tendency to wear dark clothing, played in Belfast on numerous occasions as far back as the 1960s - long before most international acts would come over

For Joanne Cash, younger sister of the late country music legend Johnny Cash, her current tour will bring back fond memories of her brother.

The Man In Black, monikered because of his tendency to wear dark clothing, played in Belfast on numerous occasions as far back as the 1960s - long before most international acts would come over.

It's six years since she last came to visit and on that trip she says she "understood immediately" why he penned the song Forty Shades of Green about the beauty of Ireland.

"It was just as Johnny had described it."

This month, she returned to the stage to join singer-songwriter Malachi Cush on his Northern Irish tour and will sing tracks from her first UK release, her 27th US album, Gospel.

The Cash family developed their love of singing on the cotton farm where they were reared in north east Arkansas in the 1930s where they sang gospel songs as they worked the fields.

Joanne admits it was a "hard, but happy" upbringing.

" In the early years of our lives, it was very hard work in the cotton fields but very rewarding," she recalls. "We sang songs like Amazing Grace, I'll Fly Away, y'know, church songs. I just thought everybody sang.

"We had a big, big garden where we grew lots of vegetables. We even grew popcorn and peanuts," she laughs.

"My parents worked very hard to provide for us and that's what we lived on. I cannot remember a single day that we did not have food."

When asked what it was like having a legend in the family, she replies: "To me, he was just my brother. Johnny at home was different to Johnny on stage, the star.

"The way I saw it was that there were two people - one was Johnny Cash the singer and the other one was Johnny, my brother, or JR as we knew him because his name was JR on his birth certificate and that's what we knew him as.

"At home, he was just like any other brother - he just happened to be world famous. We got together and we'd have family dinners and so on.

"Almost everybody says I look like Johnny a little in the face. My father had dark hair so we get that from him, but Johnny was 6ft 3in and I'm quite a bit shorter at 5ft 4in.

"When he went onstage it was like turning on a light. He loved it - it was what he was born to do. It was his calling in life - his calling from God."

She went on to run her brother's musical museum, office space and Johnny's recording studio House of Cash. But it was after a troubled spell in her life, that resulted in the end of her first marriage and dabbling in alcohol and drugs, that she found God again, remarried and established herself as a preacher and gospel singer.

Along with her new husband, Dr Harry Yates, she devoted a 15-year stretch of her life in the 1980s and 1990s to touring the United States singing and preaching.

She and her husband of 35 years live just north of Nashville and they are pastors of their own church - the Nashville Cowboy Church.

"My husband is 100% cowboy," she laughs, "and Johnny loved coming to my and my husband's church. A lot of the time he couldn't go out of his house to go to the shop or even to the church to pray.

"There were always people crowding around him looking for his autograph or to meet him.

"Johnny, himself, had a very strong faith. I have no doubt that's what caused him to pull through so many times when he probably wouldn't have otherwise," she says referring to Johnny's battle with drug addiction which gripped him at the height of his fame.

A heavy drinker, he became addicted to amphetamines and barbituates which he began taking to keep him awake as he toured relentlessly night after night.

" He would tell us that himself and there were so many times he was so near to death. But, we all prayed and prayed for him," says Joanne. "There are always struggles involved with being as world famous as Johnny was.

"That level of fame and adoration ... I once heard it likened to almost being a prisoner in your own home. He used to try and disguise himself, too. He would wear old clothes, a hat and sunglasses and it would work until he spoke - there was no disguising that deep voice of his!" This 'calling' as she likes to describe Johnny's gift was something her father, a farmer used to hard, physical labour, didn't quite comprehend in the beginning.

"He didn't understand how Johnny singing songs could make money or earn him a living," says Joanne. "My father was very hard working and he wanted his children to do well. When he realised that Johnny's singing was a calling from God and that it would bring him great success, then, of course, he was proud of him.

"I don't think my daddy was as mean as the movie (Walk The Line) portrayed. It showed a few instances when my daddy didn't understand Johnny and put them all together in a movie, just like Hollywood does."

The movie biopic of Johnny's life was a box office smash when it was released in early 2006 and went on to win numerous awards, including an Oscar for Reece Witherspoon for her role as June Carter Cash, Johnny's second wife. June penned the song Ring Of Fire about falling in love with Johnny while married to another man.

Along with hits such as I Walk The Line and A Boy Named Sue, Ring of Fire became a song synonymous with the legend that was Johnny Cash.

With Joaquin Phoenix alongside Witherspoon as the Carter-Cash duo, the actors recorded all their own vocals for the film and subsequently the soundtrack release which was also a major hit worldwide.

When asked of her thoughts about the movie, she says that she enjoyed it "in a way" . "If you want to ask me, 'was the movie good?' it was correct. It was like living my life all over again. Joaquin (Phoenix) and Reese (Witherspoon) did a wonderful job."

The beginning of the movie re-enacted the tragic death of the eldest child in the family, Jack, who died after getting caught in a buzz saw at the mill where he worked.

Older than Johnny by two years, the brothers were very close. He survived for a week after the accident before passing away. Joanne was six years old at the time and vividly remembers the effect it had on her family.

" It was hurtful to watch when my brother got killed. I had some tears watching it, but it was exactly how it was," she sighs. "Jack was gonna be a preacher had he lived." However, the film did not please Johnny's daughters, Roseanne, Cathy, Cindy and Tara from his first marriage to Vivian Liberto. "Johnny's daughters didn't care for the movie because all they remember from that time of their lives is their parents divorcing and all the hurt they felt as children at that time. The rest of the movie is exactly how it was."

Johnnys had five children and two step-children in total from his two marriages.

Second wife June had two daughters Rosie and Carlene from her first marriage and together they had one son, John Carter Cash. Joanne likens her own marriage to that of her brother's.

"My husband and I continue to put Jesus first in everything we do and we are very much in love still to this day. We do everything together," she says.

"My marriage has lasted a very long time as did June and Johnny's marriage and the reason was that we always put Jesus first. June was a lovely woman.

" Johnny wrote a song for June and himself on his travels all over the world called Meet Me In Heaven. Johnny and I sang it to her before she died just as she was leaving us to go to Heaven," Joanne recalls.

Less than four months after her passing, Johnny himself died aged 71. Although he died of complications arising from diabetes, having battled with neuropathy and bouts of pneumonia, it was felt that he'd died from a broken heart.

"He recorded new songs after she passed away. It was as if he needed to take his mind off it ... but I think in the end he kind of just gave up."



> Joanne Cash is the guest star of Malachi Cush's Northern Irish tour which includes the Waterfront Studio, Belfast, on Monday. For more information, log onto www.malachimad.com

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