Johnny Cash: Forever Words (or, according to the physical CD, Johnny Cash The Music Forever Words) is a collaborative album consisting of 16 songs based on Johnny Cash’s unpublished poetry, lyrics, and letters.
Some of them are drawn directly from Forever Words: The Unknown Poems, described as “a volume of Cash’s unpublished writing edited by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon“. Indeed, it has been described as a “musical companion” to the book. The promo copy I received didn’t come with a lyric sheet or information apart from a track listing naming the artist(s) for each song. And a spectacular array of artists it is, too. But it would have been nice to have known more about the supporting personnel, for example.
Here are the tracks and artists.
1 ‘Forever / I Still Miss Someone’ is a poem read by Kris Kristofferson over Willie Nelson’s guitar, where Nelson picks out the tune to the classic ‘I Still Miss Someone’, a song written by Johnny Cash and Roy Cash Jr and recorded way back in 1958. Despite Cash’s awareness here of his own mortality, there’s no doubt that his songs will indeed “still be sung“.
2 ‘To June This Morning’, by Ruston Kelly and Kacey Musgraves features Everly-ish harmonies over restrained banjo and guitar. Simple, short, effective.
3 ‘Gold All Over the Ground’ by Brad Paisley is a more mainstream country song/performance, but an excellent example of the genre.
4 ‘You Never Knew My Mind’ is sung by Chris Cornell, once described by Alice Cooper as “the best voice in rock and roll“, who died in May 2017. It has some of the feel of Cash’s last recordings.
5 ‘The Captain’s Daughter’ is performed by the Alison Krauss and Union Station. I’d crawl over glass to hear Krauss in any context, but, typically of her work with Union Station, there’s also some very nice instrumental work that doesn’t hurt my ears either. And it’s a fascinating story/song.
6 ‘Jellico Coal Man’, as performed by T Bone Burnett, captures nicely the feel of a typical Cash song (if there is such a thing) though the vocals are much lighter.
7 Rosanne Cash’s ‘The Walking Wounded’ is a slow ballad that reminded me a little of Mary Chapin Carpenter. Lovely.
8 While John Mellencamp has a voice all his own, I can certainly imagine ‘Them Double Blues’ in a Johnny-and-June concert performance, perhaps with a little more Luther Perkins “boom-chicka-boom” on the guitar. Sadly, that will have to remain a fantasy, unless some tribute act takes the hint.
9 Jewel’s ‘Body On Body’ starts off with folky acoustic guitar and builds into a ballad that shows off her vocal range to good effect.
10 On the whole, I like Elvis Costello’s songs more than his voice, but ‘I’ll Still Love You’ works well. If the lyric is less complex than you might expect, it melds very nicely with a typical Costello melody and layered orchestration.
11 Carlene Carter’s ‘June’s Sundown’ has a minor melody and instrumentation that recalls Eastern Europe rather than Memphis, but it’s perfect for the lyric.
12 ‘He Bore It All’ by Dailey & Vincent comes over as very mainstream bluegrass with a gospel theme and classy harmonies, banjo, mandolin and fiddle. As you’d expect.
13 ‘Chinky Pin Hill’ by I’m With Her, combines what sounds like a fretless banjo with cool twists of harmony and country fiddle. Fascinating: a trio I’d rather like to hear more of.
14 ‘Goin’, Goin’, Gone’ by Robert Glasper and featuring Ro James and Anu Sun, is in complete contrast, with more than a hint of Stevie Wonder in the arrangement and vocal delivery, but morphing into a spoken description of amphetamine addiction.
15 ‘What Would I Dreamer Do?’ is a nice country-rock performance by The Jayhawks.
16 Jamey Johnson is a new name to me, but ‘Spirit Rider’ is a fitting end to the album, though the tune is rather close to ‘Fields Of Gold’ at times.
This is a recording many people will want: fans of Johnny Cash, fans of one or more of the artists who participated, and anyone open to a rather different take on country music. Me, I’m off to find out more about some of the names here that are less familiar to me. And perhaps order the book…
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Artist’s website: www.JohnnyCashForeverWords.com
‘The Walking Wounded’ – Rosanne Cash: