The mythic image of Johnny Cash as country music’s most iconic outlaw doesn’t always jibe with the fact that the Man in Black was also a sensitive, nuanced literary craftsman. That misconception may be corrected by Johnny Cash: Forever Words, a collection of Cash’s poems, lyrics and letters set to music by a host of Cash superfans including John Mellencamp, Brad Paisley, Jewel and Elvis Costello. The incisive lyrics from the man who once wrote “Folsom Prison Blues” and “I Still Miss Someone” provides the common thread throughout an expansive 16-song album that ranges from traditional bluegrass (Dailey & Vincent), rootsy blues (T Bone Burnett), plainspoken folk (I’m With Her) and avant-garde jazz (Robert Glasper).
The best moments on Forever Words reveal as much about the artists taking on Cash’s words as they do about the complicated man who once wrote them. “To June This Morning,” a 1970 letter Cash wrote to his pregnant wife June Carter Cash and sung here as an aching duet by country newlyweds Kacey Musgraves and Ruston Kelly, unearths Cash as a profound sentimentalist. Meanwhile, “You Never Knew My Mind” comes as a chilling postscript from the late Chris Cornell, who communicates Cash’s tortured introspection with a haunting familiarity.
But the most lasting tribute to Cash that Forever Words offers is just how easily his prose and poetry is effortlessly sculpted into an array of distinct personal styles. “The Captain’s Daughter” sounds like a forgotten Alison Krauss and Union Station hit from the turn of the century, while “The Walking Wounded,” delivered with gravitas by Cash’s daughter Rosanne, would sound at home as a standout on any of her last several records. Just as Billy Bragg and Wilco helped reanimate and modernize the words of Woody Guthrie with their Mermaid Avenue albums 20 years ago, Forever Words is a moving, illuminating window into the grace, darkness, mercy and struggle that Johnny Cash spent his entire life documenting in song.