‘I promised I would always sing for God’

Like her big brother Johnny, Joanne Cash struggled with drugs and alcohol, but when she became a Christian, her life turned around.  She tells her story to George Luke

Joanne Cash is full of stories about her famous big brother. Memories such as the night he pulled up outside their family home in a Cadillac and asked her to go and see a show with him.

“As we rode off, he explained what was going to happen,” she recalls. “First, a guy was going to come on and sing to warm up the crowd, and then the star of the show would go on and perform. I asked him who the star was, and he said ‘Why – it’s me, of course,’ and I said ‘But you’re not a
star! You’re just Johnny – my brother!’”

Joanne never did get to see Johnny perform that night. She spent the entire duration of his performance chatting backstage with the ‘warm-up guy’ – a young unknown called Elvis Presley!

“Right from the time we were children, I remember Johnny saying that he was going to be a singer,” Joanne reminisces. “I would laugh; I was a child and didn’t realise that truly that was what he was going to be. My
brother Jack, who passed away, was going to be a preacher. And even at the age of 14, his life was a ministry; he left a lot of good memories behind.

“As a child, I didn’t fully understand the magnitude of what God was doing. But as we got older, any contest Johnny would enter – even in high school – he’d win hands down. Little by little, he became known as ‘JR Cash that sings’. JR was his real name. When he went into the Air Force and was stationed in Germany, he formed his first band. That’s where they began to call him Johnny, and it stuck.”

Joanne shared her brother’s gift for singing, and watching him grow up and become so successful increased her desire for success as a singer in her own right. “I tried to be a country singer,” she says, “but I can look
back now and see how God closed those doors.”

God had been on Joanne’s mind ever since her brother Jack died in a  mill accident. “When I was nine, I went to church and shook hands with the preacher in hopes of being able to go to heaven and see Jack,” she says. “But I walked away afraid that God didn’t really want me.”

Those fears of rejection grew stronger during her high school years, and shortly after leaving school, Joanne got married and moved to Germany.

The marriage was a disaster, and she turned to drugs and alcohol to ease the pain. In time, the family grew to three children and moved back toAmerica. But her drug, alcohol and family problems only worsened. Then in 1970 – after the marriage ended - Joanne became a Christian and started working in Johnny’s House of Cash studio.

“When I came to the Lord in 1970, I made him a promise,” she says. “I told him, ‘If you let me sing, I’ll always sing for you.’ He certainly kept his promise to me. My latest album, Gospel, is my 27th – and they’ve all been
gospel albums.

“The only way to make it in the music business – be it in country or in gospel – is to give your life absolutely to Jesus Christ. I’ve seen so many talented singers come and go because they tried to build their own kingdom – and it’ll fall without Christ. I’ve been there; I’ve seen it;
I’ve experienced it . . .

“The only way to be successful is to lay it at the feet of the Lord. I have laid not only my singing at his feet, but I’ve laid my entire life at his feet. Every morning without fail, my husband and I give our day to the Lord.”

Shortly after her first marriage ended, Joanne met the new love of her life – a minister by the name of Dr Harry Yates. They got married on the27th of December 1971. Joanne and Harry have six children between them.
“Harry has two sons and a daughter,” she explains, “while I have two daughters and a son.  And we have 17 grandchildren, so I’m a busy woman!”

After they married, Joanne and Harry decided to go into full time music ministry, travelling and singing across America with Joanne’s two daughters in a car with all their suitcases and instruments. They did this for 15 years. Then in 1990, they founded the Nashville Cowboy
Church, which they still pastor today.

The church started with just six people in a hotel suite, but has grown steadily over the years and now has its
services in the Texas Troubadour Theatre in Nashville’s legendary Opryland. Joanne can be found singing there every Sunday.

“Pastoring keeps us busy 24-7,” Joanne says. “My first calling is to be a wife, a mother and a pastor’s wife. I love my church; I love my husband and I love my children. You put God first in everything.

“My day starts with my husband and I getting up and having devotion, and then having our breakfast together. Then he’s off to the church. He’s also Chaplain Co-ordinator for two big hospitals in Nashville. I’m always on
call to pray with people, or to see someone who’s sick or in hospital. That’s the life of a pastor’s wife. I’m always on call; always in demand – and I love it. My husband told me the other day, ‘Your job is to please me and God’ so that’s what I try to do.

“I love the Lord with all my heart. I put him first and pray about everything I do. And I mean everything – I pray about when I’m going to the grocery store!  I need the Lord, every moment of my life. And he knows that I know I need him. And as long as I know he’s with me, that he’s leading and guiding me; my day is his completely. I want to be the very best for Jesus every day. There are a couple of things I want to do with my life; I want to see a lot more people I know and have been praying for come to the Lord. I have some nieces and nephews I want to see won to the Lord.”

Joanne’s mother died just six months after she and Harry started the church. Five of the six siblings she grew up with have also passed away over the years, and so she has had to take up the role of matriarch to the
younger generations of the Cash family.

“Since my parents died and my brother Tommy and I are the two surviving members of the Cash family, I’m the one the younger ones call when they need prayer or advice,” she says. “When Johnny’s house burnt down, his
daughters called me. They were weeping, and I felt the Lord put it in my hands to comfort them, even though I was hurting too.

“I love my family. I’ve got Johnny’s daughters, his son and all my other nieces and nephews. It’s like I’m their mother now. I’m the one they look to for help and advice, and as long as I’m on this earth, I’ll be there for them – as well as for my husband.”