REVIEW: Johnny Cash: Forever Words

The greatest hits of Johnny Cash are etched on the minds and playlists of music fans by the million and rightly so. Who doesn’t want to hear ‘Ring of Fire’ or ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ again? Equally vivid is an image of Cash; the man in black, edgy rockabilly singer, epitome of country, TV show host, outlaw, take your pick. Also memorable are his covers, particularly those later in life produced by Rick Rubin; Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down’ and  his magnificent version of the Nine Inch Nails classic, ‘Hurt’. But how is he remembered by his fellow musicians and how would his material be interpreted now, 15 years after his passing?

Listen to Forever Wordsand you will find out. This collection of 16 songs is the work of his son, John Carter Cash, who co-produced the record with Steve Berkowitz. What gives this record added depth is that it is not just a section of well-known covers but the result of John Carter Cash’s painstaking work sifting through the mass of notebooks, folders and journals his father left. Among these 2,000 pages were many hand-written poems and songs. Some were published two years ago in a book of the same name. Now comes the music; this time Carter Cash has picked out poems and songs, some never before published or performed, then matched these with artists for their interpretation.

 

The result come in several ways. Whether diehard Cash fan or just curious, listeners will find newly discovered material. Digging deeper the record shows the deep love and respect held for Cash that spans a vista of artists and styles. But at the core is the man’s humanity, faith, love and sense of justice and independence.

The artists range from family, contemporaries, collaborators and others whose world seems so far removed yet all are united by the same values.

Family ties run deep as demonstrated by the contributions from daughters Rosanne Cash and Carlene Carter. Johnny Cash abhorred violence and war yet he was able to connect with war’s victims. In ‘Walking Wounded’ Rosanne conveys her father’s pain. In his words, ““We are all the same/We are all carrying these scars/We all have these things from our past, perhaps that have wounded us deeply, that we still carry with us.”

The subject of several of these songs was Cash’s beloved wife, June Carter Cash. In ‘June’s Sundown’ daughter Carlene sings tenderly of the bonds that tied the family, with an emphasis on the equality of those ties. As brother John notes, his parents taught him that he had no half-siblings, all his sisters were full and no-one was different.

Name Johnny Cash’s closest buddies and up would pop Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson. Fittingly, they open the record with ‘Forever/ I Still Miss Somebody’, about Cash’s love and grief following his wife’s recent death. Kristofferson recites the former in a voice deep with both emotion and dignity. Together they sing the latter which as with its intro, looks back on the rich legacy Cash knows he and his wife leave but despite his shattering loss, he knows this will last, so there is reason for hope. 

Perhaps better known for 1980s/90s rock to fill stadiums John Mellencamp has deep Americana roots and knew Cash. ‘Them Double Blues’ has a jaunty folk feel, with some fine harp playing. As Carter Cash says, this is what Mellencamp and his dad would have concocted if they had been sitting together on the porch.

Gary Louris, front man of The Jayhawks, recalls the debt he and the band owed Johnny Cash when they started. He remembers being the opening act and the generosity of Cash in inviting his unknown band back to join him on the encore. The Jayhawks gently layer their flowing sound around ‘What Would I Dreamer Do’ , one of the album’s best examples of blending a distinct band sound with the dreams of Johnny Cash.

Singer-songwriter Jewel also opened for Cash, back in the 1990s. Her ‘Body On Body’ is a love song so delicate it feels it could snap.”You wonder how true love goes/ No one can say, nobody knows/ Like rain on a rock, like a leaf in the air/ No way to tell but it’s going somewhere”.

In ‘Jellicoe Coal Man’ another great producer, T-Bone Burnett, captures perfectly a true Cash character. The lyric is about a man who sells coal door to door but can also offer warmth of another kind. The strong rhythm is a reminder of the early rockabilly Cash.

Then we get to those who didn’t overlap with Cash but acknowledge his influence on their work. Here we see the care John Carter Cash took in researching and matching artists with songs. Perhaps the most unlikely pairing of song and artist is Robert Glasper, who with Ro James and Any Sun are better known for their hip hop, rap and soul work. So what, they articulate Cash exquisitely in ‘Goin’, Goin’, Gone’. Here we go straight back to the Cash and Rick Rubin collaboration. Cash would have approved his son’s inspired choice. 

Perhaps more typically and from the Americana category are wonderful contributions from Alison Krauss who recording with Union Station and Jerry Douglas, sang a song written by a young Johnny Cash that could have come from classic literature, ‘The Captain’s Daughter’. Moving into pure bluegrass and gospel, both loves of Cash, is Dailey & Vincent’s ‘He Bore It All’. Willie Nelson’s spoken intro from Matthew 11:28 adds the deep faith that sustained Cash through so much of his life. Carter Cash sought out one of today’s finest trios, I’m With Her (Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz and Aiofe O’Donovan) for ‘Chinky Pin Hill’. Their haunting harmonies and Jarosz’s banjo evoke memories of one no longer with us physically but very much there in every other sense.

Then the styles spread out again but each is carefully chosen; Brad Paisley, ‘Gold All Over the Ground’, Elvis Costello’s lament ‘I’ll Still Love You’, Chris Cornell, ‘You Never Knew my Mind’ and Jamey Johnson, ‘Spirit Rider’. All stamp their mark firmly with their recording and love of Cash. 

Recording previously unreleased material of artists long since departed can sometimes be little more than squeezing a few extra pounds and dollars from fans’ pockets. Forever Words on the other hand is a remarkable effort by John Carter Cash in memory of his father. His selection of material and artists is inspiring and a worthy tribute to all, in particular his father.

Lyndon Bolton