Various Artist – Johnny Cash: Forever Words
Legacy Recordings – 6 April 2018
“Johnny Cash: Forever Words,” is a noteworthy example of what a compilation album can be. It’s not a traditional cover album, as Cash never recorded any of the songs found on the release. The songs were collected after his death by his son John Carter Cash, and many originally appeared in the book “Forever Words: The Unknown Poems,” published in 2016.
At the core of the album are the words of one of the 20th century’s greatest artists, Johnny Cash. Many of the songs began as discarded scraps of paper, others were more developed poems that never made it to onto a record. Several serve as a posthumous love letter to his cherished wife June Carter.
Cash himself was no stranger to cover songs, recording some classics over the years from artists as far-flung as Bob Dylan, Nirvana and Depeche Mode. The album not only contains a wide range of artists, but also a range of musical styles. The songs run the gamut from traditional bluegrass to R&B/Hip Hop to deep roots to singer-songwriter/indie. The mix might not be for everyone, but there sure is something for everyone to find here.
It’s hard to choose just a few highlights on this one. The 47-second opener Forever/I Still Miss Someone has Kris Kristofferson voicing over the guitar chords of Willie Nelson. Its lyrics reflect the themes found on this album:
“You tell me that I must perish/Like the flowers that I cherish
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.”
The husband-wife team of Ruston Kelly and Kacey Musgraves delivers a stunning duet on To June This Morning, a love song Cash wrote to his late wife. “And I made the morning coffee/Then you feed on the stair/You said good morning to me/Then I sat beside you there.” Indeed, it’s not hard to imagine Johnny and June sharing a quiet moment on the stairway.
Alison Krauss, who arguably has the sweetest voice in the English-speaking world, shines on The Captain’s Daughter, the story of a courtship between a “poor boy” and a rich captain’s daughter. The late Chris Cornell (Soundgarden) is impressive on You Never Know My Mind, recorded only months before his tragic suicide. His performance is sublime and the lyrics haunting “You did not see me well enough to recognize the signs…”
Roots sounds abound – John Mellencamp goes “full front porch” on the uplifting Them Double Blues, and T. Bone Burnett tells the story of the Jellico Coal Man, a tune that could describe life in South Wales or the hills of Kentucky (where the Jellico mine was located.) Cash includes a playful double entendre in the lyrics – “It comes direct from the Jellico mine/It’ll warm your baby in the winter time/When the sun comes up, that’s the time I start/You will see my coming with my two-wheel cart.”
Chinky Pink Hill is another roots highlight, featuring the deep mountain valley vocals of I’m With Her, (Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz and Aoife O’Donovan). Behind simple banjo accompaniment, the newgrass trio sings another love song to June… “And the road is so confusing as I go from day to day/And sometimes I get worried that I’ll lose you on the way.”
Elvis Costello is brilliant as always on I’ll Still Love You. Two famous daughters can also be found here. Rosanne Cash is stunning on The Walking Wounded where she sings about the struggles of the American working class and step-sister Carlene Carter is equally strong on June’s Sundown, a story of her mother’s declining health.
Alt-country heroes The Jayhawks pluck their way through What Would I Dreamer Do? turning it into a sweet country waltz, heavy on the pedal style. Brad Paisley’s take on Gold All Over the Ground, is pretty much down the middle of modern country, while Jamey Johnston’s organ fed Spirit Rider, serves as a dirge to the man in black with lyrical passages explaining “Before you know it you will see a spirit rider,” and “If you cry out I might hear you on the wind.”
Perhaps the most unlikely song on the album is jazz pianist Robert Glasper’s grooved out R&B take on Going, Going, Gone, a tale of Cash’s addictions. “Liquid, tablet, capsule, powder, pill, smoke, vapor/Payoff’s all the same in the end/Going, going, going, now you’re gone.”
One might assume the lyrics alone would be the highlight on this release, and they are indeed touching. However, the performances are equally impressive – each contributor clearly understood the gravity of these words and put forward a special effort. I highly recommend a listen.
Johnny Cash: Forever Words is out now. Order it via Amazon