Growing up there was one album that never seemed to be very far from the old stereo in the back room (as we called it) of my family home. That album was ‘Johnny Cash at San Quentin’ and to this day I can’t hear that album and not think of my Dad. There always seems to be a debate over the Prison albums but for me, it’ll always be ‘San Quentin’ that I’ll reach for and Johnny Cash would, in a roundabout way, become the inspiration for Red Guitar Music, but that’s another story. I have a good deal of respect for John Carter Cash and the Cash family who’ve treated the Cash catalogue, in the nearly fifteen years since Johnny Cash passed with great dignity. No signs of mud-slinging and courtroom battles here, maybe the likes of the Zappa and Prince families should take note.
With ‘Forever Words’ John Carter Cash and co-producer Steve Berkowitz have taken an interesting approach in putting together an album that showcases and pays tribute to Johnny Cash in his own words. This is not a “New” Johnny Cash album nor is it a straight-ahead “Tribute” album. Taking original poems, letters and lyric ideas from Cash’s papers they’ve offered the text to artists to interpret in their own way. It’s a risky idea that will, I’m sure, promote much discussion among fans of Cash and the artists included here. To be honest, the producers are on a fool’s errand as the old John Lydgate quote goes “You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time” but I’m happy to give them kudos for trying.
The album opens with two of Cash’s closest friends and collaborates ushering in the record with stately grace as Willie Nelson picks away at his trusted old guitar while Kris Kristofferson adds the most weathered of vocals to recite a poem. I’d have loved to hear Willie and Kris contribute full tracks but as an opening, it seems very fitting, especially as it evolves into ‘To June This Morning’ a letter Cash wrote to his wife June Carter Cash. This piece is performed by Ruston Kelly and Kacey Musgraves, a real-life couple, which seems fitting and adds a certain something to the piece. Things switch up a gear, all be it gently, as Brad Paisley performs ‘Gold All Over The Ground’ with skill and no little guitar playing panache.
The first single from the album ‘You Never Knew My Mind’ has taken on an added poignancy with the death of Chris Cornell and the track now stands as one of his last recordings. Cornell’s vocal is ragged and uneven which imbues the lyrics with a pain that would prove, unfortunately, all be it unintentionally, somewhat prophetic. Speaking of terrific singers from completely different areas of the musical genre, Alison Krauss’ angelic voice is always welcome, especially when in conjunction with Union Station for the first time in a studio in six years and their contribution to the album ‘The Captain’s Daughter’ is beautiful on so many levels, from the vocal to the instrumentation to the song itself. This is easily a highlight of ‘Forever Words’ but frankly, this’d be a highlight on any record.
T Bone Burnett performs ‘Jellico Coal Mine’ and gives Kristofferson a run for his money in the weathered vocal stakes before Rosanne Cash delivers another album highlight with the stunning ‘The Walking Wounded’ which wouldn’t have been out of place on her glorious ‘The River & The Thread’ release. The Carter/Cash family connection is completed by Carlene Carter with ‘June’s Sundown’ a mournful, piano-led, lament. Things take a bluesy/roots turn with ‘Them Double Blues’ which is a little on the throwaway side, and I’m a big John Mellencamp fan, but works well in the context of the album and you could picture Cash giving this a gravelly sense of style in a similar way to the T Bone Burnett track from earlier on the album.
One of the most pleasant surprises of ‘Forever Words’ is the Jewel track ‘Body On Body’ which is just fantastic. This is the Jewel of ‘Pieces Of You’ the artist who I first saw on the Terry Wogan TV show here in the UK back in ’94. ‘Body On Body’ has a sensual power and Jewel’s delivery is just perfect, you couldn’t really imagine how Cash might have performed the lyric as it seems so at odds with his material (Cash could be as varied as any artist if you dig deep enough). It’s so great to be re-introduced to an artist who’d not really been on your radar for a few years and if any of her recent releases are even close to the standard of ‘Body On Body’ I will need to get reacquainted with Jewel.
Bluegrass is represented on ‘Forever Words’ by Dailey & Vincent whose performance of ‘He Bore It All’ highlights Cash’s faith and features stunning harmonies, especially that bass vocal which bought a big smile to my face. While ‘Chinky Pin Hill’ from the recently formed bluegrass powerhouse I’m With Her is easily as good as anything on their debut album.
I have a few issues with the Elvis Costello track ‘I’ll Still Love You’ which leaves me cold, I’ve no issues with Mr Costello and actually enjoy much of his work but…’I’ll Still Love You’ is a real problem for me. My issue is with the instrumentation, the word is Elvis set down and put the song together on the piano so why, oh why, then drench the track in sweeping strings and really intrusive horn parts. An interesting idea some would say, others will love it, but this fails to work on so many levels I’m sad to say. Oddly, my thoughts on Elvis Costello are reinforced by ‘Goin’ Goin’ Gone’ by Robert Glasper featuring Ro James which should standout like a sore thumb, which it kinda does, to be honest, but it still works really well if you have time for a little R&B. Robert Glasper has released a string of albums on the famed Blue Note label and is very much in demand thanks to his work with Kendrick Lamar and the soundtrack to ‘Miles Ahead’ both of which scooped Grammy Awards. Glasper is a pianist and producer so Ro James adds a, Prince influenced, vocal to the mix and the result is a striking track that deals with some of Cash’s issues and comes complete with Cash reciting his side of the story. The track works on many levels, I’m not sure how Robert Glasper came to be involved (I'm guessing Steve Berkowitz) but I’m glad he did, and you've gotta love those crunching, distorted guitars underpinning the chorus.
The Jayhawks are always welcome anywhere at any time for this reviewer and the oddly titled ‘What Would I Dreamer Do?’ doesn’t disappoint. The track finds The Jayhawks at their most country with echoes of Willie Nelson and the mandolin parts are especially nice. Fittingly the album concludes with ‘Spirit Rider’ performed by Jamey Johnson who’d be a shoe-in if the label has any plans to put together a modern-day version of The Highwaymen (I’m not necessarily advocating this as a good idea) as Johnson is at the forefront of what could be classed as Outlaw Country these days. ‘Spirit Rider’ is a masterpiece of understatement with droning organ, gently busy drums and a trumpet part that reinforces the feeling of a eulogy.
‘Forever Words’ is a fine collection with barely a misstep along the way. John Carter Cash, Steve Berkowitz and the artists involved can look back on a job well done and I don’t think ‘Forever Words’ will be very far from my stereo over the coming weeks and months.