When Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash passed, they left behind undiscovered material that includes Johnny Cash’s handwritten letters, poems, and documents, that spans across his whole life. Over the past two years, album producers John Carter Cash, son of Johnny and June, and Steve Berkowitz invited a star-studded line-up of musicians to create music to these newly discovered Cash writings and poems.
They recorded primarily at The Cash Cabin Studio built by Johnny Cash in the late 1970’s in Hendersonville, Tennessee, about 20 miles outside of Nashville. The Cash Cabin Studio is a private recording studio with an amazing history. Johnny and June recorded most all of their later music here, along with many other talented musicians and famous entertainers. Putting the poems and writings to life was a challenge when trying to figure out who would sing each one.
“Determining the artist for each song was truly a matter of the heart,” said John Carter Cash. “I picked the artists who are most connected with my father, who had a personal story that was connected with Dad. It became an exciting endeavor to go through these works, to put them together and present them to different people who could finish them in a way that I believed that Dad would have wanted.” “My father’s words pulled the artists there,” said Mr. Cash of the inspiration for the music written for the project. Each of the artists who appear on the record identified strongly with the poem he or she set to music.
The album opens with Kris Kristofferson speaking the words to “Forever,” an eight-line poem that Cash wrote in 2003, just weeks before he died. “You tell me that I must perish/Like the flowers that I cherish/Nothing remaining of my name/Nothing remembered of my fame,” Then, Willie Nelson gently plays the tune to Cash’s 1959 hit, “I Still Miss Someone,” on guitar. Mr. Kristofferson and Mr. Nelson inhabit Cash’s poem perfectly and that should come as no shock given their decades-long friendship with him and their mutual membership in the outlaw country group, the Highwaymen.
John Mellencamp and T Bone Burnett each have some up-tempo fun with their lyrics while Carlene Carter contributes a lovely sound in “June’s Sundown”. Rosanne Cash gives stark voice to her father’s legacy of singing the music of the forgotten in “The Walking Wounded” and Brad Paisley puts a nice melody to his song “Gold All Over The Ground”. Musgraves does a harmonizing duet with her husband, Ruston Kelly, with a letter the Cash wrote to wife June. Dailey & Vincent’s gospel bluegrass sound fits the lyrics of “He Bore It All,” including Cash’s prelude verse from the Book of Matthew.
Arguably the song that is the truest to Cash is the one done by Chris Cornell. Cornell took the poem and turned “You Never Knew My Mind” into a soft yet haunting ballad. “I thought it was kind of brilliant,” Cornell said at the time, “that he would bother sort of writing a song in its entirety from maybe his own perspective, and then sort of to the perspective of the person he’s writing about – like seeing both sides of it, and going to the trouble of actually writing it out that way.”
Closing the album on a perfect note is the country singer Jamey Johnson’s arrangement of “Spirit Rider,” a poem that evokes just the sort of immortality Cash longs for in “Forever” at the start of the album. “If you cry out I might hear you on the wind,” Mr. Johnson begins. “And if the mountains echo your love to me/Wave your heart and/I’ll be riding back again.”
Even though Johnny Cash died in 2003 at the age of 71, his songs continue to live on. His distinctive voice brought a great conviction to every word he sang. Just as significant was his tremendous presence as a human being, he was wrestling honestly with his demons, which we see in this album of songs and poems. The spirit, thoughts, and the voice, of the great Johnny Cash, comes out in each of these recordings, sounding out from the grave.
Written by Molly Holmberg