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How Chris Cornell, Kacey Musgraves Helped Turn Johnny Cash Poems into Songs

On new album ‘Forever Words,’ John Carter Cash entrusts his father’s writings to a variety of singers

Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash's poems are set to music for the new album 'Forever Words.'

Kevin Estrada/REX/Shutterstock

It’s easy to get lost in the walls of the Cash Cabin, the pioneer-like wooden retreat-turned-studio built by Johnny Cash and nurtured by his son, John Carter Cash. Photos and artifacts tell a story not just of a musical life, but of a family, too: there’s a stuffed 94-pound wahoo that John Carter caught when he was a boy, a brown velvet couch from his childhood, a stained-glass rendering of Mother Maybelle Carter on a door and countless snapshots, many of which the Man in Black took himself. John Carter is constantly stocking the place with treasures and memorabilia, including, most recently, a black-and-white shot of Chris Cornell taken when the lost legend was here recording the vocals to “You Never Knew My Mind” from the new compilation, Johnny Cash: Forever Words.

“That’s the last photograph I put up in here,” John Carter says, wandering into a tiny vocal booth and pointing to the photo of Cornell in sunglasses, singing straight into the mic. A second portrait of Cornell hangs in a closet, stacked directly above a painting of Cash himself, deadlocked in his signature stare. John Carter, tall and commanding, looks at both men often. “I’m always watching Dad and Chris,” he says.

Cornell’s “You Never Knew My Mind” is just one of many poignant moments from Forever Words, a collection of tracks produced by John Carter and Steve Berkowitz. John Carter tasked Cornell, songwriter Ruston Kelly and his wife Kacey Musgraves, John Mellencamp, Elvis Costello, Brad Paisley, Jamey Johnson, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson, among others, including Cash family members Rosanne Cash and Carlene Carter, to form songs around Johnny Cash’s uncovered poetry, letters and lyrics. Like “You Never Knew My Mind,” they seem to exist as continued conversations between Cash and artists who connected with his music on a deeper level – to where they could write not in tribute, but in continuation.

Cash built this cabin in 1978, about 800 yards from where he originally lived with June Carter. Back then, it was just one room, and John Carter would come down here to watch movies (his favorite was Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein). It’s since expanded into a full-fledged recording studio that’s hosted everyone from Loretta Lynn to Snoop Dogg, many of whom have inked their signature on the fireplace mantel. Cornell came here after demoing his songs in a makeshift studio in a Hawaiian hotel-room closet – of which he sent his friend and producer John Carter a picture.

“On the left were [Cornell’s widow] Vicky’s clothes, and on the right were flannel shirts,” John Carter says. “The song floored me. It laid me on the ground when I heard it, emotionally. He was in a really good place when he wrote it.” John Carter stops for a breath, which ends up flowing into an extended, heavy sigh. “He was in a great spot.”

Cornell based the track on two songs of Cash’s, written during his divorce to his first wife Vivian in 1967, but ended up creating his own version that was a meeting of both: soaring painfully through lyrics like “sometimes, you’re a stranger to me,” its palpable loneliness resonates even stronger after his untimely death. John Carter would rather not see it in that context, though.

“[Cornell] had such a respect for my dad and a humility for being involved in the whole project,” he says, sitting down at the recording console in a gray work shirt and queuing up a preview of the video he made with Kristofferson, Nelson, Musgraves and Kelly – their first two songs, “Forever/I Still Miss Someone” and “To June This Morning,” exist in John Carter’s mind as one collective piece of work. The former ends with a haunting line, spoken by Kristofferson to Nelson’s complex walks on the guitar: “the trees that I planted still are young, the songs that I sang will still be sung.”

Cash wrote those words in the last month of his life, as a love poem to June Carter after her death. He knew that he was dying, too – he was nearly blind, and his body was failing him. “To say that at the end of his life is essentially hope,” says John Carter. “That’s the thread through this – hope.”

John Carter sees a lot of that hope in Musgraves and Kelly, and a lot of similarities between the newlywed songwriters and his own parents. “Here’s a young couple running parallel lives with where my mother and father were,” says John Carter. “In that vibrant, excited point where there is all that hope.” Musgraves describes their song as “a simple, live recording dressed with only acoustic guitar, banjo and our two voices melting together [which] encapsulates the feeling perfectly.” Coincidentally, Kelly had actually started his own version of the track when he was just 16 – he found the lyrics in a Cash fan memorabilia book, with a date at the bottom. “7 a.m., February 4th, 1970,” it read.

“John Carter had never seen or read that poem before,” says Kelly. “When he saw it, he started tearing up and said, ‘On that date, my mother would have been eight months pregnant with me.'”

John Carter claims that the rest of the album flowed just as naturally: Costello sat at the piano and sang “I’ll Still Love You” spontaneously, Jamey Johnson easily ran through “Spirit Rider” and Paisley poured out “Gold All Over the Ground.” “[Paisley] looked at the lyric, hit record and started playing guitar and singing, note for note, just like that,” says John Carter, who attributes that ease to the innate connection Paisley and the other artists hold with his father. It’s not an uncommon connection to have.

“You can ask the little old lady at the 4-H club, ‘Do you like Johnny Cash?”” John Carter says. “And she’ll say, ‘I have all his records.’ And you ask the punk on the street in Amsterdam, ‘Do you like Johnny Cash?’ And he’s got the same records.” 

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