Tribute albums are a fickle bunch. At their best, they breathe new life and new meaning into an artist's storied catalog. Think Chimes Of Freedom, a sprawling four-album, multi-genre collection spanning Bob Dylan's career. At their worst, they're, well, the 2003 Phil Collins tribute album Urban Renewal.
Johnny Cash: Forever Words takes the former to a whole new level.
To understand why this particular 16-track tribute album to Johnny Cash is so special, you need to understand the origin of the material. After all, artists pay musical tribute to Johnny Cash more than just about any other artist.
But unlike other albums, Johnny Cash: Forever Words shines a light on the lost and undiscovered writings and poems of a man shrouded in as much mystery as revelry. Because every song's lyrics came not from previous Cash tunes, but instead from personal writings and material Cash never released.
Adding Another Layer
In essence, Forever Words fortifies just how nuanced, emotional and conflicted a writer Cash really was. At one moment he's drawn to exultations and gospel revivals ("He Bore It All," performed by bluegrass greats Daily & Vincent). Then at another, he's drawing the dagger on heartbreaking ballads like "You Never Knew My Mind" -- a tortured, honest look at the ups and downs of love delivered by the late, great Chris Cornell.
Cash again takes up the mantle of champion for the downtrodden on "The Walking Wounded," interpreted by his daughter Rosanne Cash. He wrote the song during a painful period in his life, drawing parallels between himself and Vietnam veterans suffering from PTSD.
In tributes to his wife June, Johnny again shows the depth of his emotional well. There's a reason "Johnny and June" are the greatest love story in American music. Ruston Kelly and Kacey Musgraves do an absolutely gorgeous interpretation of "To June This Morning," a poem Cash wrote to his wife.
Album producers John Carter Cash and Steve Berkowitz chose much (but not all) of the material from a recently published book of Cash's unearthed writings. When it came to inviting artists to perform, they strove to find artists with personal connections.
Understanding that context, album opener "Forever/I Still Miss Someone" punches you squarely in the face. It doesn't even reach a minute long, but it features Cash's lifelong friend Kris Kristofferson reading a brief poem to the musical backing of Willie Nelson:
You tell me that I must perish
Life 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 next 15 tracks rarely, if ever, let up on the emotional moments. Let's put it this way, "Gold All Over The Ground" was one of the most sincere and heartfelt moments on Brad Paisley's recent album Love And War. And it feels like one of the lighter moments on this collection.
Even on the R&B-infused "Goin', Goin', Gone" performed by Robert Glasper featuring Ro James and Anu Sun, there's an eerie subtlety to the line "Maybe I should go and get myself a gun" mixed with the sample of Cash talking about his drug addiction. The only shame about the track is it doesn't appear earlier in the track listing.
A Tribute Unlike Any Other
While Johnny Cash: Forever Words might not reach the expanse of Chimes Of Freedom, it does something few tribute albums truly achieve. It brings listeners in closer to understanding who the man was.
It's not simply talented reinterpretations of Cash material. It's entirely new songs comprised of some of Cash's most intimate and personal moments. Some tribute albums feel kind of like putting a mask on over the artist. Forever Words peels another mask off.
There are plenty of other interesting nuggets about the production and creation of the album. Including most of it being recorded at Cash's cabin studio in Hendersonville, Tennessee. But even without any other context, Forever Words is an absolutely stunning lyrical accomplishment straight from the heart. And what better way to pay tribute to an icon than to illuminate his heart.