Album Reviews

Johnny Cash – Songwriter

(Mercury Nashville/UMe) UK release date: 28 June 2024

Some 30 years after they were recorded, what strikes the listener straight away is the impressive quality of these songs, fleshed out from demos

Johnny Cash - Songwriter As one of the few bona fide legends of 20th century music, Johnny Cash’s life and career has been pretty exhaustively mined since his death aged 71, from complications related to diabetes, in 2003. So the arrival of Songwriter, a previously unreleased collection of original Cash songs, is a very welcome surprise indeed.

The story of the songs themselves dates back to early 1993, when The Man in Black found himself between recording contracts and cut an album’s worth of songwriting demos at LSI Studios in Nashville, which was owned at the time by his son-in-law Mike Daniels and daughter Rosey. Not long afterwards, Cash met producer Rick Rubin, and the LSI demos were shelved as the two men began a prolific musical partnership which resurrected the veteran singer’s career through the acclaimed six-volume American Recordings series of albums released between 1994 and 2010 (the last two posthumously).

Some 30 years after they were recorded, John Carter Cash, the son of Johnny and June Carter Cash, rediscovered the LSI songs and stripped them back to just Johnny’s vocals and acoustic guitar. Along with co-producer David “Fergie” Ferguson, the two then invited a handpicked group of musicians that played with Johnny, including former Tennessee Three guitarist Marty Stuart and the late bassist Dave Roe (who also played on the original 1993 demos), to the Cash Cabin in Hendersonville, Tennessee, the sanctuary and studio space that Johnny built on his property in 1979. Supported by a range of Nashville stalwarts and guest contributors including The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach and modern country great Vince Gill, the musicians fleshed out Cash’s demos into what Carter Cash and Fergie hoped would be an authentic realisation of how the man himself would have wanted them to sound fully formed. 

What strikes the listener straight away is the impressive quality of the material. These songs are no tossed-off afterthoughts or meagre barrel scrapings, eking out every last drop of Cash’s talent. Instead, they are songs which Cash had written painstakingly over many decades, with some dating back to the mid to late ‘70s, which he personally valued and had wanted to record at the right time. The contemporary refresh of the demos gives the album a sheen more akin to the American Recordings, but the style and lyric subject matter is vintage Johnny. Some tracks will already be familiar to Cash fans – Drive On and Like A Soldier were included with different recordings and arrangements on Johnny’s first American Recordings album in 1994 (although these are the very first known versions) and he revisits the relatively obscure Sing It Pretty Sue, originally released in 1962 on The Sound of Johnny Cash. 

Songwriter begins strongly with the graceful but portentous cosmic country of  Hello Out There, which feels like a visitation from the ghost of Cash to warn humankind of its impending doom with its opening lines “Hello out there/This is planet Earth/Calling Calling Calling Calling Calling/Hello out there/our net worth is/Falling Falling Falling Falling Falling” delivered in the singer’s trademark deep baritone as celestial backing vocals float behind him. Drive On, meanwhile, features a classic Cash jerky guitar riff and was inspired by the chronic pain he suffered from due to a broken jaw in the early ’90s, as well as the hardships endured by veterans in the Vietnam War. I Love You Tonight is a quintessential country ballad that reflects on a relationship enduring through the years, while Have You Ever Been To Little Rock is a gently uplifting, heartfelt tribute to Cash’s home state of Arkansas.

The album does hit slightly choppy waters with the dated nudge nudge, wink wink lyrics of single Well Alright, with the brash opening lines “I met her at the laundromat/ she was washing extra hot/ I said don’t you need a little help/ With that big load you’ve got” setting the tone for what’s to come. But in contrast, She Sang Sweet Baby James is a warm, lilting song about a young single mother singing James Taylor’s timeless classic to comfort her baby, with Johnny having been a fan of Taylor’s ever since he performed on the first season of The Johnny Cash Show in 1971. On Poor Valley Girl, he revisits the childhood of his beloved June, also paying tribute to her mother, country music pioneer Maybelle Carter, who died in 1978.

While the later tracks on Songwriter do start to feel slightly samey and Cash by numbers, they remain highly listenable, with impeccable performances from the band throughout. The arrangements and production merge seamlessly with the original demos, proving how intimately the key players knew Cash and his music, with the man himself in fine voice, sounding simultaneously both sonorously world weary and vibrantly fresh. As John Carter Cash explains, the aim of the project, reflected by the album title, was to put the spotlight back on Johnny’s songwriting. “I wanted it to be songs that most people hadn’t heard and that paid close attention to who he was as a songwriter and who he was as an American voice… Bob Dylan says he’s one of the greatest writers of all American written music and I agree.”

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