Rosanne Cash in the studio. | Photo: Sam Erickson
John Carter Cash first met Chris Cornell in the 1990s. John Carter, son of the late Johnny Cash, told the singer that Soundgarden’s Louder Than Love album changed his life. Cornell responded, “I was listening to your dad when it wasn’t cool.”
Though Cash had been one of country music’s biggest stars from the 1950s into the 1970s, by the Reagan years, he was no longer king. Thankfully, the singer enjoyed a late-life career renaissance when he and producer Rick Rubin began releasing the landmark American Recordings series in the mid-’90s.
Cash died in 2003, a few months after the passing of his beloved wife, June Carter. When John Carter began compiling tracks for Johnny Cash: Forever Words, a new collection of songs based on lyrics and poems his father left behind in his trove of papers, one of the first artists he approached was Cornell. The result, “You Never Knew My Mind,” is a major highlight of Forever Words, which is out today.
Cornell, who took his own life in May 2017, played the song at his concert soundchecks during the final months of his life. Given the context, John Carter tells Pandora, the aching acoustic track “is one of the most powerful, emotional performances I’ve ever heard in my life.”
There are lots of other powerful performances on Forever Words, and plenty of more hopeful songs, too. In fact, the key theme of the collection, John Carter says, is hope. From Brad Paisley’s unabashed take on “Gold All Over the Ground,” written when Cash was falling in love with June, to Elvis Costello’s orchestral adaptation of “I’ll Still Love You,” the legendary faith that sustained Cash through his hard times and personal trials carries well beyond the boundaries of genre.
There’s plenty of roots music, of course. Alison Krauss and Union Station returned to the studio together for the first time in years to record “The Captain’s Daughter,” a short story-ish lyric written by a very young Cash. Jamey Johnson inhabits the elegiac ballad “Spirit Rider.” Two of John Carter’s sisters, Rosanne Cash and Carlene Carter, contribute songs.
According to John Carter, his father wrote “The Walking Wounded” — the lyric Rosanne set to music — near the end of his life, when he was dealing with constant pain. At the time, he was also reading about veterans of war and their struggles with PTSD. The song has a simple message, explains John Carter: “We are all the same, all carrying these scars.”
John Carter asked Nashville newcomer Ruston Kelly to work with the lyrics for “To June This Morning.” It was a poem Cash wrote in February 1970, as he watched his new bride — “eight months pregnant with me,” John Carter says — come down the stairs. Kelly replied that he’d be honored, especially since he was about to get married himself — to Kacey Musgraves, who also appears on the track.
The album opens with two of Cash’s best friends, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, in a brief collaboration. While Nelson plays Cash’s classic “I Still Miss Someone” on “Trigger,” his trusty nylon-string Martin acoustic, Kristoferson recites the short verse “Forever.” Though his life will of course come to an end, Cash wrote, “the songs that I sang will still be sung.”
Of that, there is no doubt.