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'Just As True': Johnny Cash's Poems Set To Music For New Album

Apr 7, 2018
Originally published on April 7, 2018 2:24 pm

When Johnny Cash died almost 15 years ago, he left behind a treasure trove of unpublished poems and handwritten letters. The new album Johnny Cash: Forever Words, out now, immortalizes those words in music.

The 16-track record is a follow up to the 2016 book of the singer's poems, Forever Words: The Unknown Poems and includes stirring vocal performances from Elvis Costello, John Mellencamp, Brad Paisley, Willie Nelson, Alison Krauss and more. The man who brought the words and musicians together is Johnny and June Cash's son, John Carter Cash, one of the record's producers.

Taking a love letter or poem his father wrote his mother and setting it to music was deeply personal for Cash, but he says he felt the need to share his father's words.

"It was amazing to look at all these works and see the diversity there," Cash says of the approximately 70 unpublished poems and letters. To the producer, some of the poems read like old English folk ballads while others like lyrics to a hard rock song. So when it came time to pair a poem with a particular artist, Cash notes the benefit of having of a wide range of artists who are Johnny Cash fans.

"You get a true artistic interpretation with their particular brush stroke," says Cash.

"Gold All Over The Ground," sung by Brad Paisley on the album, is an adaptation of a 1967 poem the rockstar penned for June Carter before the couple started dating publicly. "The Walking Wounded," sung by Rosanne Cash, builds on Johnny Cash's legacy as a social commentator by tackling discrimination.

"When I read these words now I hear things that I wouldn't have when I was younger," says Cash. "I'm reminded of all the different faces of my father and how each of them was just as true."

Cash spoke with NPR's Scott Detrow about preserving his father's legacy and why some artists turned down working on this album. Hear their conversation at the audio link.

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SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

When Johnny Cash died almost 15 years ago, he left behind a trove of unpublished poems, handwritten letters and other writing. Now an all-star group of musicians has set up some of those words to music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TO JUNE THIS MORNING")

RUSTON KELLY: (Singing) The night was cold as dawson, and on a short white day, the brave sun rose lightning-hot, and singing, climbed its way.

KACEY MUSGRAVES: (Singing) The night was cold as dawson, and on a short white day, the brave sun rose lightning-hot, and singing, climbed its way.

DETROW: That's Ruston Kelly and Kacey Musgraves singing "To June This Morning" off the new collection "Johnny Cash: Forever Words." Those lyrics, from an actual letter Johnny Cash wrote to his wife, June Carter Cash, who died just four months prior to Johnny in 2003. Other artists on this collection include Elvis Costello, John Mellencamp, Brad Paisley, Willie Nelson, Alison Krauss.

The man who brought the words and musicians together is Johnny and June Cash's son, John Carter Cash. He joins us now from Culver City, Calif.

JOHN CARTER CASH: Oh, thank you for having me. Yeah, great to chat with you.

DETROW: I mean, I imagine this entire project is pretty personal, but taking a letter that your dad wrote your mom and making a song out of it must've really hit home.

J. CASH: Yeah. I mean, he always felt deeply, and a lot of that, you know, made it into paper. And, you know, at the end of his life, yeah, there were some-2,000 pieces of paper or more that were in his office that were left behind. And out of those, there were 60 or 70 unpublished works that were just beautiful. And then there were things that were so personal, there's no way that I would ever, you know, hand them, you know, out to the public.

DETROW: How did you pair the poems with each artist? Did you pick a poem and think, you know, who would sound great singing this? Or what was the process like?

J. CASH: It was amazing to look at all these works and to see the diversity there. I mean, I would read one poem, and I'd go, this sounds like an old English folk ballad. This could work for Alison Krauss. Or I would, you know, look at another and go, my gosh, that's like a hard rock song, or, oh, man, this lyric is something that, you know, that's whimsical and fun and can be sung by a modern folk band. I mean, that was it.

But what made that kind of interpretation of his writing handy was that artists out there that love my father have such a diverse range of artistry. And so what you get is you get a true artistic interpretation with their particular brushstroke.

DETROW: You got a lot of great people on this album, but I understand some people said, no. Were they just too intimidated to go there?

J. CASH: Well, I mean, if I found a written-out idea from Monet, you know, for a concept and I brought it to Picasso, maybe Mr. Picasso may go, I just can't write that. But Van Gogh may.

DETROW: Brad Paisley is one of the artists who did get involved. Let's take a listen to his song, "Gold All Over The Ground."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOLD ALL OVER THE GROUND")

BRAD PAISLEY: (Singing) If I had you at my mercy, there's no telling what I'd do. But I'd sit and make you listen for an hour, maybe two. And then you'd know I need you every day that rolls around. And your feet would walk on velvet with gold all over the ground.

DETROW: I'm looking at that old-fashioned artifact - a liner note on an actual CD - and there's a picture of...

J. CASH: Get out your magnifying glass.

DETROW: (Laughter) There's a picture of the poem. Looks like your dad wrote it in 1967 on a piece of loose-leaf notebook.

J. CASH: Yeah, yeah. He wrote "Gold All Over The Ground" in 1967. And, you know, it's about his love for my mother and, likewise, at that, you know, the same - in the same year, he wrote "You Never Knew My Mind," which Chris Cornell actually finished, and it is about his breakup with his first wife, Vivian. And "Gold All Over The Ground" is about my mother. Well, you know, in 1967, his love with my mother was not public yet, and so he couldn't have sang either of those songs publicly.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOLD ALL OVER THE GROUND")

J. CASH: I keep going back in work and in life to the things that matter. And, you know, these words that - they are that. They truly are. And I believe that my father would've wanted them heard.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE CAPTAIN'S DAUGHTER")

ALISON KRAUSS: (Singing) I'm a poor boy, as you know.

DETROW: Alison Krauss and Union Station's song, "The Captain's Daughter," sounds a little different.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE CAPTAIN'S DAUGHTER")

KRAUSS: (Singing) If I begged her, would she go? Or would she tell me no, no, no, no, no?

DETROW: You know, when I think of a Johnny Cash song in my head, whether it's "Folsom Prison Blues" or toward the end of "American" albums - "The Man Comes Around" - there's a very specific rhythm and cadence and a guitar chugging things forward. And there's not much of that on this album. Was that a conscious choice, or do you think the artists you worked with just didn't want to sound like they were trying to impersonate Johnny Cash?

J. CASH: I mean, the words, for one thing, no matter if they wind up sounding like a Johnny Cash song or not, they have an individual, unique intensity and strength to them that stands apart. And as an artist, you know, if that leads your creative spirit - honestly, it has to follow your own spirit. My father's not in the room.

DETROW: Let's listen to one last song. Rosanne Cash singing "The Walking Wounded."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE WALKING WOUNDED")

ROSANNE CASH: (Singing) We're in the church house kneeling down. We're in the subways underground. We're in the bars and on the street. We drive a truck. We walk a beat.

DETROW: You know, I'm struck. The first poem - the first song on the album, he talks about the fact that after he's gone, people will still be singing his songs. Fifteen years later here, that's still the case.

J. CASH: Yeah. So as - just as he influences, you know, the 5-year-old kid that stands in front of the mirror and puts on black and sings "Ring Of Fire" every morning - I get emails about that regularly - he also still influences great artists and touches fans around the world. And my father, the man - I miss him greatly, but I'm grateful that his words are still here with us.

DETROW: Did you learn anything or realize anything new about your dad working on this project?

J. CASH: When I read these words now, I hear things that I wouldn't have when I was younger. The truth is that the dark was just as real as the light. My father, you know, he would always admit to his shortcomings - his frailties. He would expose the darknesses that were within him so that, hopefully, the person out there that was going through the same struggles would see that he was honest and that he could show his flaws and not lose faith and then have strength themself to be - you know, to make it through their own struggles.

And so within these words, I'm reminded of those things when I read them - or reminded of all the different faces of my father and how each of them was just as true.

DETROW: The album is called "Johnny Cash: Forever Words," and we've been talking to Johnny Cash's son, John Carter Cash, who was one of the producers. Thank you so much for talking to us.

J. CASH: Great to talk to you, man.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE WALKING WOUNDED")

R. CASH: (Singing) With resurrections in our face. We're just like little girls and boys. We play with grown-up toys. We never thought of sink or swim. My brother hurts me, so I hurt him. We are the walking. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.