In 1944, one week after the accidental death of his older brother Jack, 12-year-old J.R. Cash answered the altar call and accepted Jesus Christ as his savior at the First Baptist Church, the tiny house of worship his family attended three days a week in Dyess, Arkansas. It was at that same church that J.R. would make his public singing debut, accompanied on piano by his mother, Carrie Cash. The song he sang was a late-19th-century hymn, “The Unclouded Day.”
By 1970, J.R. was known simply as Johnny Cash, arguably the most famous country-music entertainer on the planet at the time and the host of his own network-TV variety series. In addition to country, rock, pop and gospel superstars of the day, The Johnny Cash Show spotlighted other members of the tight-knit Cash family as well as Mother Maybelle Carter and her daughters Helen, Anita and Johnny’s wife, June Carter Cash.
On May 13th, just three days after Mother’s Day 1970, the series came to the end of its first season on ABC with an episode themed “Headliners: Country and Western Greats,” featuring Marty Robbins, Tex Ritter and Roy Acuff. Also appearing was Johnny’s 66-year-old mother, who would accompany him on piano at the Ryman Auditorium as he sang “The Unclouded Day.” The song eventually became known as “Uncloudy Day” and was cut by stars like Willie Nelson, Randy Travis, Don Henley and the Staple Singers, with Bob Dylan, in an AARP interview, recalling the Staples’ cover as “the most mysterious thing I’d ever heard.”
This mother-son version of “The Unclouded Day” for a nationwide TV audience more or less echoed the stoic atmosphere of a rural church from decades past. Deliberately paced and sung by the Man in Black with sober reverence, it stands in stark contrast to some of the more spirited renditions offered on record in recent years.
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As their performance ends, Cash tells his mother, “Mama, that was fine.” He can also be heard telling her “that was perfect,” perhaps as reassurance since she was unaccustomed to performing for television cameras. It’s a full-circle moment for the pair as it was Carrie who had to build up her son’s confidence during those early church performances, which he later recalled as “horrible,” especially when someone other than his mother accompanied him. Cash’s confidence in his ability, however, would grow as his high-pitched young voice developed the deeper register for which he became best known.
Carrie Cash was portrayed by singer Shelby Lynne in the 2005 Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line. She died in 1991, 12 years before Cash, who died in September 2003.