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Johnny Cash: Remembering a legend with a new tribute album

'Johnny Cash: Forever Words' a new tribute album is a set of 16 songs, with the lyrics dug out of handwritten manuscripts, notebooks and diaries left behind by Cash

Johnny Cash on stage. Photo: Alamy
Johnny Cash on stage. Photo: Alamy

It was during the decade between the mid-1980s and the mid-1990s that The Highwaymen, American country music’s biggest supergroup, were active. Each of the four men in that band was a legend: Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings, and Willie Nelson. Only two of them, Kristofferson, 82, and Nelson, 85, are still alive, and it is fitting that on Johnny Cash: Forever Words, a new tribute album, the two perform the opening track. It’s a short verse, delivered in under a minute with Kristofferson’s spoken word recitation and Nelson’s guitar tracing a lonesome tune. The verse, a poem written by Cash titled Forever/I Still Miss Someone, is part of his poems, songs, letters and other writings, but they were never set to music or recorded before he died in 2003.

The album is a set of 16 songs, with the lyrics dug out of handwritten manuscripts, notebooks and diaries left behind by Cash. On it, at least 20 artists from different genres have recorded their interpretations of Cash’s writing. Besides the veteran duo from The Highwaymen, there’s Rosanne, Cash’s eldest daughter; Carlene Carter, his step-daughter (from June), Kacey Musgraves, The Jayhawks, Alison Krauss, Jewel, Brad Paisley and other notables you would recognize from the world of country music, as well as ones you would not probably expect: such as Chris Cornell in one of his finest final recordings before he died in 2016; jazz and hip hop pianist Robert Glasper; punk rocker and new wave star Elvis Costello; and record producer and songwriter T-Bone Burnett.

Cash was a giant in American music, and, like his compatriots in The Highwaymen, he was among the vanguards of a subgenre known as “outlaw country", which pushed the boundaries and rebelled against the formulaic, studio-dictated slickness of country music. His gravelly, gruff vocals and singing style—partly spoken; partly sung—were the trademark of his music. So were his lyrics, which were intimate, personal and dealt openly with his own experiences—love, life, depression, and struggles, including a lifetime of dealing with amphetamine and other drug use. An itinerant live performer, Cash sold 90 million records and the number of awards, including multiple Grammys, he won before he died at 71 is too long to list. As is his discography of albums released. But gems such as At Folsom Prison (1968) and Johnny Cash At San Quentin (1969), both recorded while he performed to audiences of prisoners, are not-to-be-missed masterpieces for anyone who hasn’t delved into his music already.

Cash wrote and sang his songs from the heart with no pretensions or polishing up—the rawness of his lyrics and vocals making him a unique performer who took folk and country’s simplicity but brought to it the wildness of rock ‘n’ roll. However, even Cash saw his career dip in the late 1980s when his long-time label, Columbia Records, dropped him, and for a while he went into oblivion. But then, after signing up with the storied producer Rick Rubin, who helped him cover contemporary songs (by Nine Inch Nails, Rolling Stones, Soundgarden, U2, and a host of others), his career saw a resurgence.

There have been many tributes to Cash: at least 8-10 albums; a bio-film, Walk The Line (2005), in which Joaquin Phoenix plays him; books; and several articles. It is also believed by many that it is very difficult to cover Cash’s songs. Once you’ve heard them sung by him, anyone else’s version is a pale shadow. With the exception perhaps of Nelson, Bruce Springsteen, and a couple of others whose covers have stood out.

Forever Words, however, is a different sort of album. Since Cash never sang these songs, the participating musicians had the creative leeway to interpret them in their own styles. For instance, on You Never Knew My Mind, one of the most hauntingly poignant songs on the album, Chris Cornell’s doleful, yelping vocals bring deep meaning to what is a poem about failed love: I know you feel the way I change/But you can’t change the way I feel.

That song seems prescient when you consider that it was recorded not long before Soundgarden’s troubled frontman died last year. Several of the songs on Forever Words are done in true country style: Kacey Musgrave and her husband Ruston Kelly bring alive To June This Morning, a love letter that Cash wrote to his wife, June; American bluegrass group Dailey & Vincent sing He Bore It All, a hymn-like poem; and Carlene Carter sings yet another ode penned by Cash to her mother, June’s Sundown. But there are also many who tread a different generic path. Cornell’s version, for instance, is of garage-grunge provenance. But there is also Glasper, who takes Goin’ Goin’ Gone, a poem where Cash is addressing his drug use (Liquid, tablet, capsule, powder, pill, smoke, vapour/Pay off’s all the same in the end, pay off’s all the same in the end) and creates a jazzy, groovy, R&B track.

Forever Words has a strong Carter-Cash family imprint on it. Besides Carlene, Rosanne Cash sings The Walking Wounded, a song about America’s marginalized indigenous people and factory workers, and their struggles—a theme that recurs in many of Cash’s records and songs. And, Cash’s son, John Carter Cash, is the producer of the new tribute album. Along with Cash’s own huge body of work, it’s an album that will help keep his name alive forever.

The Lounge List

Five tracks to bookend this week

1. ‘You Never Knew My Mind’ by Chris Cornell from ‘Johnny Cash: Forever Words’

2. ‘The Walking Wounded’ by Rosanne Cash from ‘Johnny Cash: Forever Words’

3. ‘Goin’ Goin’ Gone by Robert Glasper from ‘Johnny Cash: Forever Words’

4. ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ by Johnny Cash from ‘At Folsom Prison’

5. ‘The Long Black Veil’ by Johnny Cash from ‘At Folsom Prison’

He tweets at @sanjoynarayan

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