Various Artists: Johnny Cash — Forever Words

There’s plenty to both enjoy and mull over as Cash’s thoughtful, often poetic lyrics spill out in a variety of settings.

Various Artists
Johnny Cash: Forever Words
(Sony Legacy)
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

This companion piece of sorts to 2016’s Johnny Cash: Forever Words book finds some of Americana’s most respected artists creating music to handwritten letters, poems and other documents unearthed after his 2003 death. Co-producers John Carter Cash and Steve Berkowitz worked on the project for two years, judiciously inviting only those with a philosophical — or in some cases, personal — connection with Cash to contribute.

While the concept is far from unique — similar ventures have already appeared from the posthumously found writings of Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie, and the very much alive Bob Dylan (conspicuous in his absence here)—these heartfelt performances are a fitting and reverential legacy for the rightfully celebrated Cash.

The largely ballad-oriented program ranges from the raw, stripped down banjo and vocals of Kacey Musgraves with husband Ruston Kelly (“To June This Morning”) to the radio-ready slickness of Brad Paisley (“Gold All Over the Ground”), the pure religious bluegrass of Dailey & Vincent’s “He Bore it All For Me” and T-Bone Burnett’s swampy rocking “Jellico Coal Man.” Like the notoriously multi-genre Cash, the approaches vary wildly making for an eclectic and generally satisfying set.

Each act uses backing musicians specific to them, further adding to the diverse sound. Everyone clearly understands and takes the responsibility and gravity of writing music to Cash’s lyrics seriously, thoughtfully crafting their contribution to reflect what Cash would probably have approved of. Jamey Johnson brings in somber horns for his closing “Spirit Rider,” John Mellencamp takes a page from his acoustic rocking for the peppy fiddle and harmonica driven “Them Double Blues,” Elvis Costello croons and utilizes near classical chamber instruments to reflect the muted beauty of “I’ll Still Love You” and Chris Cornell, in one of his final performances, returns the favor of Cash covering Soundgarden’s “Rusty Cage” with a stirring, emotional “You Never Knew My Mind.” Two of Johnny’s daughters are also on board with Rosanne’s hushed, elegiac “The Walking Wounded” and Carlene Carter’s similarly melancholy “June’s Sundown,” the latter a lovely nostalgic tribute to her mother. 

A few more upbeat performances might have reflected that side of Johnny’s personality (where’s the rockabilly?). And the jury is still out on if soulman Robert Glasper’s contemporary R&B interpretation of “Goin’, Goin’, Gone” complete with programmed beats is along just to bring additional diversity, although it is the only track to use Johnny’s overdubbed voice, talking about his regrets using drugs, to chilling effect.

There’s plenty to both enjoy and mull over as Cash’s thoughtful, often poetic lyrics spill out in a variety of settings. It makes this collection worthy of the man’s iconic status, which is saying plenty.