John Carter Cash Jnr on assembling a team of artists to pay tribute to the family legacy on new LP

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John Carter Cash Jnr on assembling a team of artists to pay tribute to the family legacy on new LP


It’s been nigh on 15 years since JR joined a heavenly host of country greats, but his words are getting a fresh lease on life as muso mates morph a treasure trove of his material into new songs on Johnny Cash: Forever Words. Coming to us courtesy of singer, songwriter, producer and author John Carter Cash Jnr – June Carter Cash and Johnny Cash’s only child – the album takes a swag of Cash Snr’s previously unpublished poems and gives them a loving workout in the hands of artists spanning Wille Nelson and Kris Kristofferson through to Elvis Costello, T. Bone Burnett and Alison Krauss.  

In the year’s since Cash Snr’s passing, Carter Cash Jnr has tended the family legacy with respect and love, being careful only to release material of which he’s certain his old man would approve. Thus far, the Carter-Cash clan has released material including Out Amongst The Stars, which explored Cash Snr’s oft ignored ‘80s output, and now Forever Words and its companion reader Forever Words: The Unknown Poems.

Carter Cash Jnr has some unwritten rules about the things to which he’ll loan his old man’s name. The approach is intuitive. “Follow the heart,” Carter Cash Jnr explains of his guiding principle. “For every one that was kept, two were set aside in consideration for this project. It had to be something I felt firmly he would have wanted to be released.

“But then, also, my father took chances. He always took chances in this life. He said, ‘Follow your heart, do what you believe is right.’ That’s sort of what this is about. It’s about being able to say that in the spirit of my father’s own creativity, here is a song being interpreted in a genre of music that might not be expected. But my father did many unexpected things over the years, like recording songs by hard rock and electronic artists. He would champion someone like Bob Dylan in the early ‘70s when no one was appreciating Mr Dylan for his artistry.”    

That said, sifting through the belongings of someone who’s beloved and now deceased can be a bitter sweet experience, but for Carter Cash Jnr it’s a labour of love. “It was a matter of the heart,” he says. “So many thousands of pieces of paper. The years went by and I started to preserve those. I found 200 previously unpublished poems and works there, and out of those, there were 60 or 70 that were astoundingly and undeniably beautiful: strong, diverse. Everything from whimsical to steadfast to spiritual to love letters to gut-wrenching, life-pain experience. There was so much there. I felt my father’s voice and the strength of his character in those words.”

Not that his legion of devoted fans required convincing, but part of the inspiration for the project was to establish Cash Snr’s chops as a literary figure, all of which led Carter Cash Jnr to hooking up with Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon to edit the collection for the purposes of the book. As it turned out, they were just warming up. “It was a sounding board for the project in the beginning – it was a foundation,” Carter Cash Jnr explains. “But then I heard music, melody.”

The album starts with Kris Kristofferson reciting the poem, ‘Forever’ while Willie plays the guitar in the background. Take a listen, but brace yourself – it’s a poignant moment. Carter Cash Jnr notes that his dad wrote the words in the last days of his life, and while they kickstart the album, they also sum up its ethos perfectly. “It’s a continuance of my father’s voice,” Carter Cash Jnr muses. “Someone else is singing the words, but it’s his words extended beyond his own personal mortal frame and a new song being sung.” Then, in the rumbling timbre he shares with his old man, Carter Cash Jnr recites the verse, and we’re almost undone.

“You tell me that I must perish, as the flowers that I cherish, nothing remaining of my name, nothing remembered of my fame, but the trees I planted are still young, the songs that I sang will still be sung.”