Cash poems get second life

Cash poems get second life
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November of 2016 saw the arrival of Forever Words: The Unknown Poems, a posthumous collection of unpublished poetry written by Johnny Cash, the first person ever to be inducted into both the country music and rock ‘n’ roll halls of fame.
By turns flinty and tender, devotional and irreverent, haunted and enraptured, Cash’s poems – which date back to the 1940s – proved as multifaceted and emotionally far-reaching as the man himself.
Johnny Cash: Forever Words, due on Friday from Sony Legacy, gives his verses even broader expression, enlisting a circle of kindred spirits, including John Mellencamp, T Bone Burnett, Kacey Musgraves and Cash’s daughter, Rosanne, to set a selection of them to music.
The arrangements vary, from ambient electronica and Appalachian Gothic to contemporary torch song and bluegrass gospel, with scarcely a hint of Cash’s trademark freight-train rhythms. Reverberating throughout the album’s 16 tracks, nevertheless, is the unmistakable voice of the Man in Black.
Cash’s son, John Carter Cash, served as one of the producers for the project, along with Sony’s Steve Berkowitz.
For John Carter Cash, hearing his father’s words come alive to music written by others was tantamount to communicating and having the chance to collaborate with him again.
“When the book of poems came out I heard melodies,” said Cash, talking about the impetus for the project by phone from London while he was on a promotional tour there last month.
“My father wasn’t here to sing those melodies, but they were there. I heard his voice again – that, and I believed there were artists out there who loved him who could do his words justice.”
The album opens augustly, with Kris Kristofferson intoning the words to Forever, an 8-line poem that Cash wrote in 2003, just weeks before he died.
“You tell me that I must perish/Like the flowers that I cherish/Nothing remaining of my name/Nothing remembered of my fame,” Kristofferson begins in a craggy baritone. Then, as Willie Nelson lightly fingerpicks the tune to Cash’s 1959 hit, I Still Miss Someone, on gut-string guitar, Kristofferson goes on to assert: “But the trees that I planted/Still are young/The songs I sang/Will still be sung.”
Hope abounds here, an unshakable faith of almost biblical proportions, in the persistence of some form of life – some sort of enduring relevance – beyond the grave.
The ease with which Kristofferson and Nelson inhabit Cash’s poem is hardly surprising given their decades-long friendship with him and their mutual membership in the outlaw country supergroup, the Highwaymen.
For some, however, being invited to enter the artistic consciousness of – and, in a sense, to collaborate with – someone who is no longer alive, especially someone as imposing as Cash, proved too daunting a proposition, making several prospective contributors decide not to participate.
“Each artist has their own understanding of the creative process, and, for some, this just wasn’t something they would do,” said Cash. “To them, it would have been like asking Picasso to pick up a paint brush and finish a painting started by Monet. They’d say, ‘No way. I can’t go there.’”
Most of the musicians who were asked to contribute, though, relished the chance to do so, among them the perennial Grammy-winner Alison Krauss. Procuring the songwriting skills of her frequent collaborator, Robert Lee Castleman, Krauss said that she approached her track – The Captain’s Daughter, a poem rendered as an old Anglo-Celtic-style ballad – less like she was completing something that was unfinished and more like she was creating something new.
A similarly inventive approach guided Elvis Costello in his jazz-inflected reimagining of the poem, I’ll Still Love You. “I looked at the lyric and, before I could stifle the thought, the melody appeared in my head,” Costello wrote.
(New York Times News Service)