John Carter Cash is an imposing yet reposeful presence as he leans his 6-foot-2½-inch frame against one of the rough-hewn lumber beams supporting the porch roof of the Cash family cabin in a rural town 30 miles north of Nashville.
He nods toward a woodsy knoll a few yards away and points out where deer can often be seen grazing on the other side of a fence between the cabin and the lake that long was a favorite respite for his celebrated parents, Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash. The cabin also houses a recording studio that both Johnny and June used until their deaths in 2003.
“This was his place to get away, back in the day,” said Cash, the only son of one of country music’s most beloved couples. “It’s home,” he said softly. “We’re always doing one thing or another here.”
Among the latest products out of the rustic cabin is the exceptional new album “Forever Words.” On it a stellar array of country, rock and pop stars pay homage to the Man in Black by creating new songs setting many of his unpublished poems and lyrics to music for the first time.
The project brings together across 16 tracks a remarkably diverse gathering of artists, from peers and close friends Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson to family members including Rosanne Cash and Carlene Carter.
Disciples and admirers such as Elvis Costello, the late Chris Cornell, Brad Paisley, Alison Krauss & Union Station, superstar producer, singer and songwriter T Bone Burnett, Kacey Musgraves, John Mellencamp, jazz pianist and hip-hip artist Robert Glasper, bluegrass duo Dailey & Vincent, country maverick Jamey Johnson and freshly minted roots music trio I’m With Her are also showcased, among others.
It’s an aural companion to the book “Forever Words: The Unknown Poems” published in 2016 and edited by Paul Muldoon, the 2003 Pulitzer Prize winner for poetry. Several but not all of the songs on the “Forever Words” album, which John Carter Cash produced with Steve Berkowitz, draw on Johnny Cash’s writings that also appeared in the book. The album is due for release April 6.
“When anything new from Johnny Cash comes out, I always want for that endeavor to be something I believe he would have liked to have seen released,” said Cash, who has overseen several posthumous projects over the last 15 years. “I also want it to be something I feel, and the folks I worked with on whatever project it is feel, is viable and unique in its own right.”
The “Forever Words” album would seem to fill the bill on both fronts. The poems and lyrics newly put into song span virtually his entire life, from “What Would I Dreamer Do?,” an undated work that John Carter Cash estimates his father wrote at age 13 or 14, to “Forever,” which he wrote in summer 2003, just a few weeks before his death at age 71.
Another of the earliest works recorded for the album is “The Captain’s Daughter,” which was written when Cash was 19 or 20 and which Krauss and her band chose to record.
“There were a whole bunch of lyrics Johnny Cash had written, it’s a huge book,” Krauss said in a separate interview last year not long after their session at the Cash Cabin, where many of the tracks were recorded. “His son has the book, and he’s had people write melodies for them. What I’ve heard so far is amazing. We did a track for that and had Robert Lee Castleman write the melody for that — oh, gosh, it’s just beautiful. So that was fun.”
Cornell chose “You Never Knew My Mind,” a piece Cash wrote in 1967 around the time he divorced his first wife and mother of their four children, Vivian Liberto, before he and June Carter married the following year.
Cornell also experienced the dissolution of a marriage (to first wife Susan Silver), something that John Carter Cash said came through in his setting of his father’s lyrics. Long before Cash recorded his lauded version of Cornell’s song “Rusty Cage” on his 1996 album “Unchained” with producer Rick Rubin during his late-in-life career renaissance, Cornell was a Cash fan.
“When Johnny Cash covered ‘Rusty Cage,’ it was the first time I received compliments (about) my lyrics,” Cornell said several years ago to the Hartford Courant. That was because, he suggested, “You can’t always make out the words I sing with Soundgarden.”
“I knew he was one of my dad’s favorites within the music industry,” said Cash. “He respected my father as much as anyone in that realm of music, so I knew he’d be part of it. He told me backstage in mid-1990s how much he loved my dad.”
The song delves into the heartbreak of people who grow apart: “You didn’t see me well enough to recognize the signs/ You didn’t want to know it’s over/ You never looked close enough to know/ You never knew my mind.”
“It took him (Cornell) a long time to come back with the original demo of ‘You Never Knew My Mind’,” Cash said. “It laid me down when I first heard it because it connected so deeply with his own pain and angst and honesty … . But his whole body of work is about connecting with the pain. He was in a really good space when he wrote that song. It still lays me down and brings me near to tears when I hear it and sometimes takes me all the way there.”
Cash also approached songwriter Ruston Kelly, with whom he’d written songs previously.
“I asked him, ‘Would you be interested in looking at this book and finding something you could put melody and music to?’ He nearly cried in my face. He told me, ‘When I was a teenager, someone had published a handwritten lyric your father wrote to your mother, and I started trying to put some music to it but never finished it. I just recently finished it for my fiancee.’”
“I said, ‘Who’s your fiancee?’ and he said, ‘Kacey Musgraves,’” with whom Kelly recorded that song, “To June This Morning.”
“It’s all been very organic,” Cash said, “that kind of serendipity that I couldn’t have created if I tried.”
There’s a measure of pride in Cash’s voice when he talks about the broad range of artists involved.
“Creatively, it had to go there because Dad’s writing was so diverse. With some lyrics or poems, as I looked at them I realized, ‘This would work perfect for a country artist’ or ‘this ties in with bluegrass-gospel’ or ‘this is gut-wrenching and powerful and could be for a hard-rock artist singing a heavy ballad,’ or ‘This would work with hip-hop.’ It’s that diverse.”
The album begins with an instrumental arrangement of one of Cash’s earliest songs, “I Still Miss Someone,” which he wrote with nephew Roy Cash Jr., and it segues into “Forever,” recited by Kristofferson and Nelson and serving as a guiding principle for the whole album.
“After my mother’s passing,” Cash said, “within a notebook filled with very lonesome love letters to her, words of agony, were these words of hope, this stanza that represents the fact that he saw beyond the pain he felt. The beauty that remained in his heart at that time is something we could all retain.”
“Forever” is exceptionally concise, and all the more powerful for its brevity: “You tell me that I must perish/ like the flowers that I cherish/ Nothing remaining of my name/ nothing remembered of my fame/ But the trees that I planted still are young/ The songs I sang will still be sung.”
“The love people have for my father’s music has not diminished,” Cash said, “it has only grown. I firmly believe it’s because of his integrity as a human being, as a person — and just that he had a great heart.
“To me, that’s the reason it’s endured, the reason he still connects with people from so many different walks of life: because he was real. He was honest. And anything we put out now, it has to be honest.
“If it’s not honest,” he said, “it’s not Johnny Cash.”