By Claire Booth
Johnny Cash plays an important part in my Hank Worth mystery series – Hank’s father-in-law is a devoted fan, as I am in real life. So I’ve been eagerly anticipating the release of the latest Cash album, which dropped Friday. Johnny Cash: Forever Words is a collection of Cash’s writings that current artists have written music for and then performed for the album. Having other voices sing Cash’s unfamiliar words (unlike, for instance, a cover of one of his already-well-known songs) makes the writing really stand out. It reminds you that in addition to being one of the most famous and well-regarded singers of the twentieth century, he was also a hell of a writer.
The lyrics come from the writings Cash made throughout his lifetime, according to co-producer John Carter Cash, Johnny’s son. Carter Cash then chose the specific artists who would set each set of words to music.
Some of the songs feel a little like first drafts or a novel – all the components are there, but how might they have grown if they had a chance for revision? For Cash fans, though, (me included) it’s not just better than nothing, it’s a new and essential addition to his work.
Carter Cash was looking for “an honest connection” between each artist and his father, and the list he came up with is certainly ecclectic. It ranges from country star Brad Paisley to jazz pianist and R&B singer Robert Glasper to folk singer Jewel.
The album very appropriately leads off with a song from two of Cash’s fellow Highwaymen. Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson were part of the outlaw country supergroup with Cash and Waylon Jennings, and the two put music to “Forever/I Still Miss Someone.” The lyrics are a poem Cash wrote in the last weeks of his life. Carter Cash found a folder with letters his father had written his mother, June. Inside were also a few poems. Right in the middle was the one he took to Kristofferson and Nelson. It – like so much of Cash’s work – is profound and heavy without being ponderous.
Kristofferson said that Cash may be the most spiritual person he ever knew because of Johnny’s consciousness of his own mortality and his own weaknesses.
John Mellencamp and T Bone Burnett have fine up-tempo fun with their lyrics; Carter Cash’s sisters, Rosanne Cash and Carlene Carter, both contribute lovely work.
The best song on the album – the song that is the truest to Cash himself – is the one done by Chris Cornell*. A god of the grunge rock movement, Cornell took the poem, an exchange between two people, and turned “You Never Knew My Mind” into a beautiful, 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.”
Cornell’s voice doesn’t sound anything like Cash’s. But his pain does. He comes the closest of all the artists to Johnny.
In that last poem, he penned a sentiment shared by anyone who creates – whether song, novel, artwork, poetry or anything else.
Nothing remaining of my name,
Nothing remembered of my fame.
But the trees that I planted still are young,
The songs that I sang will still be sung.
*Cornell died in May 2017.