When country music legend Johnny Cash died in 2003, he left behind a veritable treasure trove of unpublished poems and letters that would later serve as the basis for the book Forever Words: The Unknown Poems.
Further expanding upon the project, John Carter Cash, the son of Johnny and June Carter Cash, has enlisted a who’s who of musicians to set those poems to music. Released at the start of the month, the 16-track record, Johnny Cash: Forever Words, features moving performances from John Mellencamp, Kris Kristofferson & Willie Nelson, Elvis Costello, Brad Paisely and the late Chris Cornell, along with Carter Cash’s step-sister Rosanne Cash.
Carter Cash acknowledges that while the Forever Words book might have come first, there was little doubt that some of the more than 200 unpublished pieces of poetry and lyrics would eventually be set to music.
“The whole time I was pouring over these words of my father, I kept picturing having them set to music and melody,” Carter Cash explains. “The purpose behind the book was to reaffirm my father’s strength as an American cultural literary figure. That is what ultimately served as the foundation that would lead to the making of this album.”
For Carter Cash, one of the most important aspects in assembling the project was enlisting a wide array of musical talent from both within the country music world as well as from outside the genre.
“If you look at my father’s history with music, he was as musically diverse as those that listened to his music. It appealed to people from all musical spectrums: bluegrass, hard rock, hip-hop and everything in between. People making music across all those genres of music have the same Johnny Cash records in their collection, so this was a great way to bring those worlds together. These are the people that have sung my father’s songs throughout their lives.”
Recorded in what was originally a one-room cabin built by his father, the Cash Cabin has since evolved to a full-fledged recording studio that has hosted the likes of Loretta Lynn and the majority of the artists featured on Forever Words.
According to Carter Cash, there were a number of artists he had approached to be a part of the project that politely declined his offer, stating they didn’t feel comfortable treading on potentially sacred ground. But rather than feel offended or rejected, Carter Cash completely understood where they were coming from.
“Some of those artists just said they couldn’t go there, putting music to my father’s words, and I respected that,” he says. “And of all the artists that did take part, they were each very respectful of those words and were careful not to overstep any boundaries or take any freedoms. That being said, there are uniquely wonderful depths to each of these songs. I’m very pleased with the way the album turned out.”