Interviews

Life of a Song: Clare Bowen & Brandon Robert Young on Recording Johnny Cash Poem 'Little Patch of Grass'

Manfred Baumann

Since 2018, the Forever Words project has paired artists with the poetry and lyrics of Johnny Cash to set some of the Man in Black's words to music for the first time.

For Forever Words (Expanded Edition), husband and wife singer-songwriters Brandon Robert Young and Clare Bowen, who portrayed Scarlett O'Connor on Nashville, recorded Cash's poem "Little Patch of Grass."

Originally written as a short love letter to June Carter Cash, Young and Bowen transform the poem into a swirling, intoxicating love song.

"Little Patch of Grass" was recorded at Nashville's Cash Cabin, the Cash family cabin turned recording studio.

 

Below, read an excerpt from Wide Open Country's conversation with Clare Bowen and Brandon Robert Young, who discuss writing and recording "Little Patch of Grass," their friendship with John Carter Cash and the "spiritual air" of the Cash Cabin. (The interview has been edited for clarity.)

Wide Open Country: It must be such a surreal experience to take part in the 'Forever Words' project and record and build off of lyrics that Johnny Cash wrote. What did that mean to you?

Brandon Robert Young: If you had said to me 20 years ago, when I moved to Nashville to start writing songs, that one day I would get to put music to the lyrics of one of my heroes, I would have told you you're crazy. It was, to use your word, surreal. I was out at the Cash property with John Carter -- he and I write songs together. Claire and I have written songs with [Cash] and his wife Ana [Ana Cristina Cash]. I was out out at the property and we were riding around in the ATV, feeding the animals... He brought it up and just said, 'Hey, you know, I'm working on this project and I wonder if you'd like to take a look at some of these lyrics and maybe turn it into a song.' So of course I was just blown away. We went back to the house and he pulled up these really big, thick books of lyrics and poetry and things. And we just looked through it at the kitchen table. The poem was called "Little Patch of Grass" that Johnny had written to June as a bit of a love letter in -- I believe it was September of 1982. It just kind of really stuck out to me. I thought it was beautiful. It felt almost like a sister song to one of Johnny's more famous songs called "Flesh and Blood," which was always a song that I loved. So yeah it was a wild, wild experience.

Clare Bowen: He came home, we sat down at the kitchen table and he said 'would you help me with the melody for the harmony for this song? You won't believe what John Carter has asked me to do.' John and Ana are such good friends of ours and John Carter officiated our wedding. We met them downtown at the Nashville wrap party...we became fast friends after that... So from that to Johnny Cash being one of Brandon's greatest heroes of all time and actually my granddad's favorite musician, it's such a lovely thing to be asked to do -- not just because of the legend that Johnny Cash was and became, but also because that's John Carter's dad. He's one of our dear friends' fathers.

WOC: What was the process for taking a poem that Johnny Cash wrote and turning it into a song?

Brandon Robert Young: I brought the lyrics home and I had a picture of the actual letter in Jonny's handwriting. It said at the top 'to June with all my love, John' and it had the date September, 1982. And so I read through and I looked at that picture and I just started fooling around with chords on the guitar to see what melody sort of presented itself. Then when I had some semblance of a loose idea, I sat down with John and kind of honed in on that a bit and and then sat at the kitchen table here and Claire and I sang through [it]. It's interesting when you're singing with another voice. A lot of times things present themselves that you wouldn't initially think of. Sometimes harmonies become melodies and melodies become harmonies and you'd never would have expected that. So you're just kind of reaching into the air in some ways just to see what takes hold. When you land on something, you can feel it and when it's wrong, you can feel it.

Clare Bowen: The song will let you know.

Wide Open Country: And you recorded at the Cash cabin.

Clare Bowen:  It's a really special place. It's actually where the boys got ready when we were getting married.

Brandon Robert Young: When you walk through those doors, you can feel it. You're breathing some spiritual air in that place. It's the place where Johnny Cash recorded the last song of his life... The morning we were getting married, I was in the cabin with my guys -- with Clare's father -- and John Carter walked in. I can't remember which one of the guys was asking John Carter about how the family home on Old Hickory -- Johnny and June's house -- had burned down. John told us the story that he could hear his mom -- he could hear June saying 'John, this doesn't feel right. I don't like this. They're going to decorate differently than we do and it's going to feel different. Something just doesn't feel right to me.' And John Carter, in that instant, he said 'I could just hear my dad saying Well, June, let's just burn it down'... I'm telling you, I get chills telling that story now, because we were all standing in the cabin and in that moment John Carter sounded exactly like his father...and the entire room just fell silent.

Claire later said that may have been ultimately what [Johnny and June] wanted from the other side. Maybe they didn't want it to become a dusty museum. Maybe they just wanted it to be their home and remembered as it was and not to become a dusty museum where people are looking at gold records on the wall.

Clare Bowen: That's the thing about the cabin. In moments like that and the quiet moments ...there's so much history there. If you sit in the right chair, you realize that you're in the rocking chair that Johnny carved his name into...Sometimes [Johnny and June are] just there and you know that they're there and they've come for a bit of a visit because it's their place. It's such an honor to be invited into that space and to have it have such a historic meaning in the fabric of country music and...having such a personal meaning for us as well. It just kind of feels like coming home. I think it was the only place that [the song] was supposed to be recorded.

 

Forever Words (Expanded Edition) contains the original 2018 album along with 18 new songs, featuring recordings by Kris Kristofferson, Brad Paisley, Elvis Costello & the Imposters, Kacey Musgraves and Ruston Kelly, Jamey Johnson, Marty Stuart and more. 

 

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Now Watch: 'Me and Bobby McGee': The Story Behind the Song

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Life of a Song: Clare Bowen & Brandon Robert Young on Recording Johnny Cash Poem 'Little Patch of Grass'