In February 2016, Jamey Johnson arrived at the Cash Cabin Studio in Hendersonville, Tennessee, to transform a Johnny Cash sketch into a full-fledged song. The result of that session arrives Thursday with the Rolling Stone Country premiere of “California Poem,” one of a number of new tracks on a deluxe edition of the album Forever Words. Originally released in 2018, the LP put Cash’s unfinished writings, poems, and lyrics into the hands of artists like Chris Cornell, Ruston Kelly, and Brad Paisley.
After Johnson finished writing “California Poem” with Cash’s son John Carter Cash, the two set it to music, enlisting bluegrass aces Jerry Douglas and Sam Bush to provide dobro and mandolin respectively. The final product is a cinematic dirge, with Johnson rumbling, “There’s trouble on the mountain/valley’s full of smoke” before horns enter the mix. It all culminates in a lengthy instrumental jam, as the string instruments pluck and ping and the horns explode in a soulful chorus. “Everybody run,” Johnson intones. While “California Poem” may be based around Cash’s words, it’s the musicianship that distinguishes this particular entry in the series.
“California Poem” is among a second bulk release of songs off Forever Words officially arriving December 11th. Marty Stuart’s “I’ve Been Around,” Blues Traveler frontman John Popper’s “Who’s Gonna Grease My Skillet?”, “The Dogs Are in the Woods” by John McEuen, and “Little Patch of Grass” by Brandon Robert Young and Clare Bowen make up the rest of Friday’s drop. Other releases from Forever Words are set for February and April.