VARIOUS ARTISTS – Johnny Cash Forever Words (Legacy Recordings)

Forever WordsJohnny 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CD, Johnny Cash The Music Forever Words) is a collaborative album consisting of 16 songs based on Johnny Cash’s unpublished poetry, lyrics, and letters.

Some of them are drawn directly from Forever Words: The Unknown Poems, described as “a volume of Cash’s unpublished writing edited by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon“.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…

David Harley

Artist’s website:

‘The Walking Wounded’ – Rosanne Cash:

Asleep at the Wheel – Still the King: Celebrating the Music of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys (Proper)

Asleep2Willie Nelson, Brad Paisley, Jamey Johnson, George Strait, and Lyle Lovett are just some of the guest artists on Asleep At The Wheel’s soon-to-be-released album Still the King: Celebrating The Music Of Bob Wills And His Texas Playboys.

Clearly, leader Ray Benson has some friends who respect his talent.

And why not? Ever since 1970, when Benson formed the now Austin, Texas-based group in Paw, Paw, Virginia, it’s preserved the Western Swing tradition of Bob Wills. This latest recording is the nine-time Grammy Award winning group’s third tribute to Wills.

But don’t let all the fancy, arena-filling names fool you into thinking that the music is anything but Western Swing at its finest.

It’s not a stretch to hear Merle Haggard’s distinctive vocals wrap smoothly around those of Asleep at the Wheel’s Emily Gimble on ‘Keeper of My Heart.’ They’re as natural as hearing Del McCoury – whose vocals enchanted everyone from Bruce Springsteen to the late Jerry Garcia – and his band perform ‘Silver Dew on the Bluegrass Tonight’ or Nelson joining the Quebe Sisters for a stunning performance of ‘Navajo Trail.’

Those songs and the others are brilliant and bewitching.

The real stand-out songs, though, are those where younger performers – including Brad Paisley, who lends virtuosic guitar work and vocals to ‘My Window Faces the South,’ and the Avett Brothers’ elegant performance on ‘The Girl I Left Behind,” – bolsters belief that Western Swing and its fans won’t fade away anytime soon.

Asleep At The Wheel doesn’t currently have any U.K. concert dates set, but this March 3 release is a terrific placeholder until they make their way back.

Nancy Dunham

‘San Antonio Rose’ live:

CARLENE CARTER – Carter Girl (Rounder)

CarterGirlAs the daughter of June Carter and 50s country star Carl Smith and the step-daugher of Johnny Cash, even making reference to her musical heritage feels like unnecessarily stating the obvious. However, recorded with a core band of Blake Mills and Greg Leisz  on guitar, Don Was (who also produces) on bass and Jim Keltner behind the kit, this is the first time she’s dug so deep into her mother’s family’s roots with all but one of the twelve tracks being taken from the Carter Family songbook.

While never looking to clone the folk and bluegrass Carter sound, some of these do remain fairly faithful the originals, albeit given a punchier contemporary country feel, most notably the twangy vocal honky-tonk swayer ‘I’ll Be All Smiles’, a jangly ‘Gold Watch And Chain’ and the yee haw bounce of ‘Poor Old Heartsick Me’ (a number from the Carter Sisters repertoire), the latter two both custom-built for line dancing. Teaming with Kris Kristofferson, she also resurrects ‘Black Jack David’, AP Carter’s rework of the traditional folk ballad ‘The Raggle Taggle Gypsies’.

Decidedly removed from the Carter version, ‘Little Black Train’ opens the album with a swampy gospel groove driven by Carter’s growly vocals and some molten guitar work from Leisz while she also a  more twang country heft to her mother’s 1999 song ‘Tall Lover Man’, making sure to bring out its sly  musical reference to Cash’s ‘Ring Of Fire’.

Elsewhere, you’ll find a lovely waltzing ‘Give Me The Roses (While I Live)’, a lively duet with Elizabeth Cook on ‘Blackie’s Gunman’ which features Sam Bush on mandolin, and a terrific version of ‘Troublesome Waters’, this time with Willie Nelson doing the duet honours.

Family roots are equally present in Carter’s own contributions, revisiting her 1990 tribute to grandma Maybelle for a rearranged, less Dolly Partonish, version of’ Me And The Wildwood Rose’ with ‘Lonesome Valley 2003’ featuring new words to AP own appropriation of the 19th century spiritual, taking the pace right down to a full blooded piano backed gospel mood with harmonies by Vince Gill.

Given the nature of the album, it’s appropriate that it should close with something of a family reunion as, through modern technology, Carlene’s joined by the voices of Helen Carter, Anita Carter, June Carter Cash and Johnny Cash for a rousing finale of ‘I Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow’. Tremendous stuff.

Mike Davies

STATE OF THE UNION (Boo Hewerdine & Brooks Williams)

In the grand tradition of ‘The Special Relationship’, State Of The Union combines the talents of America and England, producing an end result that is sure to delight fans of hook-laden songs, fiery and emotional guitar playing and soulful vocals. Tapping into a multitude of influences, from Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash to Blind Lemon Jefferson, the wide open Fenlands and the frenetic buzz of London, State Of The Union is a masterclass in songwriting, showing off the talents of bluesy Americana stalwart Brooks Williams and cult British singer-songwriter Boo Hewerdine to full effect.

When Brooks was called in at the eleventh hour to replace the billed Special Guests at Boo’s annual Christmas shindig, the seeds for State Of The Union were sown. “Boo rang me up that morning and asked: ‘Could you, would you?’ To which I responded, ‘Yes’”, explains Brooks. “The audience loved it. We loved it, and soon we were playing together as often as our schedules allowed, and working on a collaborative album.”

With both men bringing songs to the table, and collaborating on new material, the chemistry between the duo was undeniable as a torrent of creativity was unleashed in Boo’s living room. Making rough demos on their iPhones, the decision was made to record the songs proper at the Kyoti Studio in Glasgow. A week was booked, but just as the songs had flowed so freely, the pair cut the album in a mere one and half days, recording the songs in the order they appear on the album. With production handled by Mark Freegard (Pete Townshend, Del Amitri, Marillion), the album is intimate and captivating, like a concert delivered in your living room. Two guys, two guitars and a handful of great songs.

Album opener ‘Darkness’, a slice of dusty Americana, sees Williams’ smooth vocals riding on top of his slick, slide guitar playing. Conjuring images of a battered frontiersman returning home, the song is a masterpiece of concise story telling. ‘23 Skidoo’ by Hewerdine is a wryly humorous look at the bitter-sweet nature of life, no sooner have you got a grip on things and you’re forced to move on. With its 1920s rag-style guitar parts harking back to the era that gave birth to the phrase, the song has all the hallmarks of an old classic, belying its contemporary nature.

With a sharp turn, the pair’s take on ‘Rent’ flips the Pet Shop Boys’ song on its head, taking the electro-pop original and dressing it in wiry slide guitar, with Hewerdine’s voice bringing an aching honesty to the lyrics. Whether it’s authentic Americana, delicate ballads, re imagining modern pop or a new take on the classic standard ‘Peg And Awl’, the union of Williams and Hewerdine is in a wildly creative state, producing one of the year’s must-have albums.

‘A slice of Americana at its finest!’ – fRoots
‘Deft, tasteful guitar chops’
– Rolling Stone
‘A beautiful album, full of classy playing and great songs’– Acoustic Magazine