In November 2016, thirteen years after his death, Johnny Cash spoke once again in the introspective and reflective poems in Forever Words: The Unknown Poems (Blue Rider Press). The poems, introduced by poet Paul Muldoon and with a foreword by Cash’s son, John Carter Cash, ranged over themes of love, death, solitude, loneliness, and hope. Included in the collection are the singer’s story poems, such as “The Captain’s Daughter” and “Jellico Coal Man.” He expresses his deep religious commitment in “He Bore It All for Me” and captures his own peripatetic longing for freedom and love in “Spirit Rider.”
Now, John Carter Cash and Steve Berkowitz have produced a beautiful and poignant new album on which various artists have put many of the poems in Forever Words, as well as other unpublished writings of Johnny Cash’s, to music. The album opens with a spare, haunting, and prelude, “Forever/I Still Love Someone,” that features Willie Nelson’s somber guitar riffs floating underneath Kris Kristofferson’s recitation of Cash’s poem. Sprightly, if mournful, banjo notes weave around the voices of Ruston Kelly and Kacey Musgraves as they interpret Cash’s letter to his wife, “To June This Morning”; with their starkly beautiful harmonies, the couple captures Cash’s longing and love for June. Brad Paisley turns in a glittering version of Cash’s “Gold All Over the Ground,” a paean to a lover and the singer’s intention to assure his lover that her “feet would walk on velvet/And gold all over the ground,” and that her “sky would be full of diamonds/And your nights would not be black.” Alison Krauss & Union Station deliver an ethereal and evocative version of “The Captain’s Daughter”; it’s one of the album’s shining moments. Rosanne Cash captures the melancholy and haunting character of her father’s poem, “The Walking Wounded,” in a minor-chord lament: “we lost our homes/we lost our dreams/we hurt each other/and ourselves/we are the walking wounded.” Carlene Carter’s delivers a somber, almost gypsy-like “June’s Sundown,” and Jamey Johnson brings the album to a fitting close with “Spirit Rider,” a tune that opens with stark vocal over sparse guitars before moving to a crescendo of horns as the rider moves along his journey. The most joyous song on the album is Dailey & Vincent’s “He Bore It All." The tune opens with a scripture reading and then gallops off into celebratory bluegrass gospel with a typical bluegrass shout-and-response harmony.
Forever Words illustrates how deeply Cash’s words are etched into our collective musical consciousness, and these songs capture and express the ways that various musicians interpret Cash’s legacy and his songwriting genius. There’s a stony beauty to these tunes, etched out of the craggy splendor of Cash’s vision and insights into the vagaries of his life.