Album Review: Johnny Cash’s Posthumous ‘Songwriter’

Posthumous albums are often the subject of intense debate. Is it fair to release music that the artist himself didn’t release while he was alive?

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Songwriter is not the first posthumous album to be released under country legend Johnny Cash’s name. For all we know, it won’t be the last. The recordings featured on the album were just recently discovered. There may be more out there. But are they worth putting onto an entire album? In the case of Songwriter, we think so.

The Origins of ‘Songwriter’

Back in the 1990s, Johnny Cash was planning his comeback with American Recordings. He partnered up with Rick Rubin to put together a solid bowing-out record. And he was successful in doing so, all without a major record label telling him what to do.

Songwriter is composed of until-now unheard demos from the Man in Black that didn’t make the cut for American Recordings. The album was released on June 28, 2024.

The fascinating thing about this album is that as a record composed of 11 songs, it isn’t exactly mind-blowing musically. What makes Songwriter so good is the story it tells about the artist himself, rather than whatever story the movers and shakers behind the album wanted to tell. Even with good intentions.

The recordings were made before Cash met Rubin and after he found himself without a label. It shows a man ready for a comeback, but unsure of how that comeback will happen. If he had any intentions for the songs that didn’t make it to his albums before his death in 2003, those intentions were not clear. For all we know, the songs on Songwriter were originally going to be pitched to a new label.

‘Songwriter’ Is Johnny Cash at His Most Lost and Vulnerable

Not everything on Songwriter is mysterious and original. Different, more polished versions of “Drive On” and “Like A Soldier” made it to American Recordings. These songs are heavy on the otherwise light Songwriter, which is a notable difference from the haunting Southern gothic American Recordings and subsequent releases after Cash’s death. And songs like “Hello Out There” show Cash at his most existential as he wonders about the fate of the planet. 

But outside of those tracks, Cash is much simpler on Songwriter. He sings about single moms, his love for his wife, laundromats, and Little Rock, Arkansas. Cash is lighthearted, sentimental, and even funny on Songwriter. Compared to his other extremely stoic works, this album seems in itself a love letter to the husband, father, and human behind Johnny Cash.

We’d say it’s essential listening for any Johnny Cash fan.

Photo by Alan Messer/Cover of ‘Songwriter’

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