There’s a tradition in writing to publish a legendary author’s unpublished works and notes, sometimes even their letters, after they pass. The papers of celebrated authors like Ernest Hemingway, Zora Neal Hurston, and Hunter S Thompson have had their writings posthumously published. Musicians have a similar tradition of publication of unfinished works – it took less than a year for Reprise Records to release Jimi Hendrix’s first posthumous release. And there’s an odd in between category that is emerging now. In 1992, Woody Guthrie’s daughter Nora let Billy Bragg and Wilco use Woody Guthrie’s notes as lyrics for songs making up the Mermaid Avenue albums, and now, 15 years after Johnny Cash’s death, the Cash estate is creating an album out of the unused writings of that legend. The major difference between Forever Words: The Music and Mermaid Avenue is that John Carter Cash reached out to a variety of artists to bring life to Johnny Cash’s words. The enlisted old country legends like Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp, new stars like Brad Paisley and I’m With Her, and some influences outside country like Elvis Costello and Clarence Carter.
Like with Mermaid Avenue, one cannot think of these songs quite like Johnny Cash songs. The composition of the songs are completely by the artists, there wasn’t even a chord progression left behind to use, and some of these writings weren’t meant to be used as music. “To June This Morning” was adapted from a letter from 1970 to Johnny’s pregnant wife June Carter Cash. Cash’s influence isn’t even readily audible on many tracks. “I’ll Still Love You” by Elvis Costello is a good case study. The words sound very much like an American-era Cash contemplating his mortality and connections to the Earthly word, but the trumpets and strings are uncharacteristic of any period in Cash’s discography. Even this feels more grounded in Johnny’s work than Robert Glasper’s song “Goin’ Goin’ Gone.” Its roots are deeply in modern rhythm and blues, using a lot of techniques not popularized until after Cash’s death and mostly using traditions he certainly never explored. Although it does get credit for sampling a recording of Cash himself talking in an interview about his experience with substance abuse, the subject of the song, “Goin’ Goin’ Gone” feels very out of place and certainly not like a memorial to one of the greatest stars country music ever produced.
Still, many of the the artists represented in Forever Words: The Music aren’t so far a departure from Cash’s style that Johnny’s fans won’t find plenty they love. “He Bore It All” is an interesting case, where I feel that the lyrics are clearly from the final era of Johnny Cash when a more Gothic sound would have been appropriate, but I cannot criticize Dailey & Vincent as performing anything but a fine bluegrass tune that appeals to the same demographic that thinks of Cash in the same breath as Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson. Or I’m With Her’s “Chinky Pin Hill,” (I couldn’t find anything on the etymology of the title, tho the existence of another song about a place called “Chinky Pin” by Clark Kessinger suggests it’s a real place) which takes a very Gothic approach to country which was not popular until after Cash died but is very much inspired by his work with Rick Rubin. Late Audioslave and Soundgarden veteran Chris Cornell brings an amazing performance to “You Never Really Knew My Mind,” a mostly acoustic production that is punctuated with electric guitar and another Gothic arrangement fitting for such a dark song, possibly a depressing afterward for the singer’s life.
Forever Words: The Music isn’t a bad album, but it feels disjointed and too varied for it’s own good. I’m sure every Johnny Cash fan will find a few cuts they like, and some non-Cash fans might too with its diversity, but it strains connection to the lyricist. What country is there is a very modern sound, resembling the Dixie Chicks more than the man who sang “Folsom Prison Blues.” Ornate productions with mandolins and fiddles that are fine but feel like the wrong sound for a Johnny Cash tribute.
Forever Words: The Music is available now for purchase and streaming.
Greg von Teig is a musician and author living in Brighton, Massachusetts. His expertise is classic rock, folk punk, and the blues.