Tuesday, May 15, 2018


It's been 15 years since Johnny Cash passed away (let that sink in), and his son John Carter Cash has diligently curated his legacy, not flooding the market with anything that will sell, but keeping projects to those most worthy. One of these was collecting all the scraps of paper and bits of unpublished writings he found scattered around his father's homes. That resulted in a collection of lyrical poetry called Forever Words, and now some of those verses have been passed on to an all-star team of songwriters to turn into finished works. That includes old friends, admirers, one-time collaborators and even some with no connection other than appreciation. As they explain in the notes, they had to be people to whom the lyrics spoke immediately, that was the connection they wanted.

These can be tricky endeavors, but when they work, it's a blessing. The best, I suppose, is the Mermaid Avenue collection featuring Woody Guthrie lyrics and music by Wilco and Billy Bragg. Some of that Bob Dylan set Lost On The River was pretty exciting as well, and this album matches those successes. There are several songs here of the highest quality, and certainly nothing that tarnishes Cash's work. I'm assuming great care was taken to choose the best-available verses, and we get some gems. The biggest surprise is how different the tracks sound, depending on the artist involved. Each was allowed to stay within their comfort and sound, just acting like they'd received a new lyric from a trusted writer. That gives the set a grand variety, and even a few curveballs.

Among the best is T Bone Burnett's Jellico Coal Man, a slightly bawdy tale in the traveling salesman school. There are a couple of numbers dedicated to Cash's wife June, and Carlene Carter does her mother proud with June's Sundown. Her half-sister Rosanne Cash chose well too, a terrific lyric called The Walking Wounded, where Cash showed his great empathy and caring for those hurt, in this case by the collapse of the job market for those involved in traditional industries. There's a number in the old seafaring folksong style called The Captain's Daughter, which Alison Kraus and Union Station do that shows just how well Cash could handle the traditional feel as well.

But if you expect an old sound across the record, that's quickly dispelled, in a number of ways. Brad Paisley shows just how powerful a writer Cash could be by turning Gold All Over The Ground into a contemporary country number that could easily be a hit on radio today. Chris Cornell, in one of his last recordings, turned the words of You Never Knew My Mind into a dark ballad with no hint of country. R'n'B artist Robert Glasper, along with Ro James and Anu Sun, could place Goin', Goin', Gone on the Top 40, except it sounds better than all the Drake dreck you find there. Using a recording of Cash describing the days when he was addicted to pills and the horrible effect that had spells out clearly what the lyric was about.

The most pleasant surprise is how great a job John Mellencamp does on the tune Them Double Blues, a fun lyric about a particularly stunning pair of blue eyes, while the biggest disappointment is from Elvis Costello, who tries way to hard to turn Cash's basic lyric I'll Still Love You into one of his orchestrated vocal extravaganzas from the songbook era. Cash would no doubt appreciate the effort, but it's one arena that old cotton-picker truly sounds out of place. Plus, it's kind of mawkish.

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