Skip to main content

Johnny Cash was a mainstay on the country music charts during his career. One of his hit songs wasn’t written by him, and Cash’s favorite album of his career was one of his final records that very few listeners know about.

Johnny Cash strums his acoustic guitar as he performs at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles in 1997.
Johnny Cash | Jim Steinfeldt/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Music Johnny Cash dreamed of making music since childhood

Music was a near constant in the Cash household when Johnny grew up.

He sang with his family as they picked the cotton they grew on their farm. Cash spent nights tuning his radio to big-city stations broadcasting Grand Ole Opry sets and the latest blues music out of Memphis, Tenn. When she heard him sing around the house after his voice broke, Cash’s mother was floored and predicted his future success.

His family history and his mother both inspired Cash’s favorite album of his career, which was a lesser-known record and one the last ones he recorded.

Cash’s favorite album was a record filled with songs from his mother’s hymn book

The songs the Cash family sang during Johnny’s cotton-picking days tended to fall into two categories — traditional folk songs and church hymns. Several tunes from his career, such as “Daddy Sang Bass” and “Peace in the Valley,” very much touched on Cash’s Christianity.

But it wasn’t until he recorded with Rick Rubin late in his career that Cash made an album full of hymns. The Man in Black still had his mother’s hymn book, Heavenly Highway Hymns, when he and Rubin teamed up. “It’s kind of dog-eared and ragged, a little bit like I am,” Cash said, writes Alan Light in Johnny Cash: The Life and Legacy of The Man in Black

Rubin let his collaborator run wild and record anything he wanted. Cash cranked out 15 songs from Heavenly Highway Hymns, which became the 2004 album titled, appropriately enough, My Mother’s Hymn Book. He didn’t live to see it released, but he must have heard the results because Cash called it “the favorite album I’ve ever made,” per Light.

Cash had bigger selling albums that charted higher during his career. My Mother’s Hymn Book didn’t chart in the United States and didn’t reach gold status by the Recording Industry Association of America. Still, the plaintive and emotionally powerful songs on the record led to Cash calling it his favorite album he ever made.

The chart performance of his favorite record didn’t sully The Man in Black’s music career


Johnny Cash Used the Same Trick as Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page While Recording His Last Album

My Mother’s Hymn Book was Cash’s favorite work, even though it didn’t perform well. That made it an outlier in his career.

Cash saw 119 songs make the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart across his six-decade career. Nine reached No. 1, including “Ring of Fire” and “Daddy Sang Bass.”

He placed 42 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. Cash held his own at a time when classic rock bands such as The Beatles and Rolling Stones also landed on the Hot 100. 

At San Quentin album was Cash’s best-performing album from a chart perspective during his lifetime. The 1969 record spent 70 weeks on the Billboard 200 chart and four weeks standing at the top soon after its June release. The RIAA certified At San Quentin gold in August 1969, less than a year after At Folsom Prison achieved gold status. Both albums went triple platinum, per RIAA.

Despite all the hit singles spawned from multi-platinum albums, nothing supplanted My Mother’s Hymn Book as Johnny Cash’s favorite album.

For more on the entertainment world and exclusive interviews, subscribe to Showbiz Cheat Sheet’s YouTube channel.