John Carter Cash on why he compiled an album from his father's unpublished writing
Musician John Carter Cash tells Roisin O'Connor why he compiled an album from his father's unpublished writing, and what Johnny Cash would have thought of politics today
The office of the late Johnny Cash overflowed with notebooks, folders, journals and religious texts. Among these were handwritten poems, letters and song lyrics the legendary artist had set aside - more than 2,000 pages and scraps of paper.
Out of those, around 200 had never been published. From there, Cash's son, John Carter Cash, began the loving, scholarly endeavour of compiling his father's writing and forming what would become the source material for Forever Words, a new album featuring artists including Rosanne Cash, Kacey Musgraves, Alison Krauss, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Brad Paisley, Elvis Costello, T Bone Burnett and the late Chris Cornell.
"If he had have driven a train I still would have done it because he was my dad," John Carter says. "I saw this beautiful statement of his whole life when I looked at those works.
"As I read a lot of them, I often heard music. I saw the possibility of the right artists finishing these, putting music to them.
"The ones that wound up on the record are things that I believe he would have wanted to share."
Each artist on the new album loved Cash's music, and took the responsibility seriously.
"I saw some of the artists look down at the words for the first time, and the song would just come straight out," John Carter explains.
"I happened to be recording Brad Paisley when he sang Gold All Over The Ground, pretty much spontaneously after reading the lyrics.
"Steve Berkowitz (co-producer on Forever Words) was there when Elvis Costello wrote I'll Still Love You sitting at the piano, again looking at those words for the first time.
"Some people took longer and were very careful about it. Chris Cornell took a few weeks to sit back and come up with You Never Knew My Mind.
"You can read whatever into it, but when (Cornell) wrote that he was in a really good space.
"I met him backstage at a Johnny Cash show in the mid-1990s after Kurt Cobain died.
"I walked up to Chris because Soundgarden had changed my life when I was 19 years old in 1989. I introduced myself, and he said, 'Your dad has influenced me musically as much as any other artist, if not the most', so I knew he would be excited to be part of it (the album).
"It had to connect to his life, and my dad wrote those words in 1967 when he was in a divorce with his first wife, Vivian.
"Chris had been through the same, so my dad's words connected deeply."
That emotional outpouring opened the door for Cornell to do the same, he suggests. There were two lyrics - "You never knew my mind" and "I never knew your mind" - and Cornell edited them together before reaching the last line, "I never really knew your mind".
"By then, you understand what he had gone through," John Carter says. "It's an epic."
He knew Kris Kristofferson - an ex-member of supergroup The Highway Men (along with Cash, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings) - would contribute. Cash wrote the lyrics that would become Forever/I Still Miss Someone in one of the last weeks of his life - the chorus from I Still Miss Someone was written after the death of his wife, June, and Kristofferson was one of his best friends. Having him recite over Nelson's guitar was exactly right.
"Hearing those words, 'They're telling me I'm gonna perish/like the flowers I'm gonna cherish' while Nelson plays I Still Miss Someone..." John Carter shakes his head as he continues to recite: "Nothing remembered of my fame/nothing remained of my name/the trees I planted still are young/the songs I sang will still be sung."
"That shows the strength of human spirit, because he knew he wasn't long for the world," he says. "Then to follow that track with To June This Morning... because that was dated February 1970, when my mother was eight months' pregnant with me.
"It speaks about her coming down the stairs when she was carrying quite a burden."
Each artist stayed true to their signature sound, he notes, but agrees The Walking Wounded, with his sister, Rosanne, on vocals, does sound like a Cash song.
He offered her others, but he knew this was something special. "I told her, 'Rose, this one'," he recalls with a smile.
Wondering about the mass appeal his father's music had, John Carter mentions how Cash could expose himself and his frailties "and you would still love him and respect him".
"That's part of it," he says, "but there's also the Man in Black, the image of cool. Five-year-olds would want to dress like him and dance around to Ring of Fire.
"There are a lot of things about my father, various things, that people connect with. He was that diverse of a person and he has a diverse fanbase.
"What's gonna matter in 500 years? I didn't set out with Steve to make a Johnny Cash album. This is about his life, these are the words that he wrote, so musically, to me it could go anywhere."
Even the so-called "uneducated" could hear the genius of those words, and relate, he says.
Cash was always open. Fans, journalists and people on the street ask his son what he would have thought about Donald Trump. According to him, he would have had him round for dinner, they would have sat down and had a nice meal and they would have chatted.
"He wasn't political," John Carter shrugs. "He wasn't controversial unless it was to save somebody's ass. He hated war - he was a man of peace. He taught me to never raise my fist in anger and I never saw him do so.
"But he still went and sang for the troops in Vietnam when 18- and 19-year-old boys were over there scared half to death."
Honouring that stance, Cash's family posted a powerful open letter after a neo-Nazi was spotted wearing a T-shirt bearing his name.
"(Johnny Cash) would be horrified at even a casual use of his name or image for an idea or a cause founded in persecution and hatred," they said.
"The white supremacists and neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville are poison in our society and an insult to every American hero who wore a uniform to fight the Nazis in WWII. Several men in the extended Cash family were among those who served with honour.
"Our dad told each of us, over and over throughout our lives, 'Children, you can choose love or hate. I choose love'.
"We do not judge race, colour, sexual orientation or creed. We value the capacity for love and the impulse towards kindness.
"We respect diversity and cherish our shared humanity. We recognise the suffering of other human beings and remain committed to our natural instinct for compassion and service.
"To any who claim supremacy over other human beings, to any who believe in racial or religious hierarchy, we are not you. Our father, as a person, icon, or symbol, is not you. We ask that the Cash name be kept far away from destructive and hateful ideology. We choose love."
It was a reminder, John Carter says, of how Cash lived his life and what he stood for: "It's the same thing as with the president - he (Cash) would have hated the hate, not the hater."
Referring to another recent case, of a cease and desist order against a white supremacist radio show that had been playing Cash's cover of I Won't Back Down, John Carter adds: "He would not have endorsed, nor allowed, his music to be on that programme, but he would have asked them to come in and he would have read them the Bible.
"He was about peace and bringing people together."
Aged 48, he feels his relationship with his father's work has changed gradually from what it was in his thirties.
"It's like communicating with him as a different person than I was when he passed away," he says. "It's been a healing, but also a scholarly work, and experiencing time with my best friend just by reading his words and hearing his laughter. It's been many different things to me."
Johnny Cash: Forever Words produced by John Carter Cash and Steve Berkowitz is out now via Sony Legacy Recordings