Fifteen years it’s been since the Man in Black left us, a mortality Mr. Cash grappled with at the end of his life. “You tell me that I must perish / Like the flowers that I cherish,” he penned on “Forever” in his final month. But in his absence, Cash’s life and music remain the closest of friends, as he self-prophesied: “But the trees that I planted still are young / The songs that I sang will still be sung.” It’s not just that his songs were relatable and honest; his music continues to be sung because Johnny Cash truly lived his songs and shared his all with the world.
Kris Kristofferson, who recites “Forever” over the roaming guitar playing of fellow Highwayman Willie Nelson, shared after the death of his dear friend, “He’s been my inspiration, my faithful friend, my champion — a constant oasis of unconditional love and support. His fiercely independent and free spirit, balanced with his love of family, children and his fellow man, will stand as a shining example of the best of what it means to be human.” Even for those of us who didn’t know him, we share in Kristofferson’s admiration and high praise of Johnny Cash.
It’s with this deeply shared respect that the gathered family, friends, and artists on Forever Words have completed Cash’s newly found poetry and lyrics into well-crafted collaborations. From T Bone Burnett’s rowdy outlaw treatment of “Jellico Coal Man” to Elvis Costello’s orchestral performance on “I’ll Still Love You”, each artist evokes Cash’s free-spiritedness to create a musical performance true to their own musical identity, and yet never at odds with Cash’s folk and country lyricism. The simplicity and humanity of his storytelling is key to the success of such a compilation.
The lyrics, taken from ’60s writings up to right before his death in 2003, thus mirror many of the different aspects and eras of Cash’s life, from drug abuse and regret to deep devotion to June Carter. Ruston Kelly and Kacey Musgraves display Johnny and June’s immortalized love, which stretches with yearning into every mundanity on the intimate “To June This Morning”. “And I made the morning coffee / Then you feed on the stair / You said good morning to me / Then I sat beside you there,” the duo sing with the fervor and understanding of a 35-year marriage. Cash’s childlike innocence in his love for June is nothing if not adorable as Elvis Costello croons, “I won’t be a stranger when I get to heaven / ‘Cause you gave me heaven right here on Earth.” As many loves that have been inspired by this couple’s love, it’s not a wonder the artists deliver their performances with such tenderness and care.
Cash’s carry-the-world-on-his-back compassion is continued by daughter Rosanne Cash on “The Walking Wounded”, a Springsteen-esque ode to the forgotten and downtrodden working man. “We lost our homes, we lost our dreams / All our goals have turned to schemes / We hurt each other and ourselves,” Cash sings in what could easily be a look at post-housing crisis America. Carlene Carter also joins the family tradition on “June’s Sundown”, sharing a Lennon-like optimism for unity, “Millions of hearts beat as one sound / In love’s perfection together at sundown.”
But the most prescient moment of the album comes on the late Chris Cornell’s treatment of “You Never Knew My Mind”, originally written as a breakup song in 1967. The lyric serves well as such, and of course, Cornell’s raspy powerhouse vocal stuns. But given Cornell’s untimely death in 2017, the track reaches new depths of gut-wrenching heartache as he transforms the song much like Cash transformed Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” so many years ago. “You did not see me well enough to recognize the signs / You didn’t want to know this / But know that it was over,” Cornell laments. In the chorus, he continues, “I suppose you never doubted / That we were altogether fine / Then you saw the changes painfully / And you knew / You never really knew my mind.” Each line punches the stomach, again and again, filling with a grief I have only experienced in music once before, on last year’s A Crow Looked at Me by Mount Eerie.
And while I struggle to even comment on the gravity of this performance, it serves as a bleak reminder of the hard, hard fight Johnny Cash, Chris Cornell, and so many other artists have battled against drug abuse, alcohol abuse, mental health, and the other demons accompanying the rock and roll lifestyle. As consumers and lovers of the music of these artists (and just members of the human race), we have a responsibility to be that “constant oasis of unconditional love and support” Kristofferson described. And that’s what Johnny Cash hoped to accomplish through his music, which is why Forever Words stands as a necessary addition to the Cash songbook. Forever.