NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - November of 2016 saw the arrival of Forever Words: The Unknown Poems, a posthumous collection of unpublished poetry written by Johnny Cash, the first person ever to be inducted into both the country music and rock 'n roll halls of fame. By turns flinty and tender, devotional and irreverent, haunted and enraptured, Cash's poems - which date back to the 1940s - proved as multifaceted and emotionally far-reaching as the man himself.
Johnny Cash: Forever Words, due Friday (April 6) from Sony Legacy, gives his verses even broader expression, enlisting a circle of kindred spirits, including John Mellencamp, T Bone Burnett, Kacey Musgraves and Cash's daughter, Rosanne, to set a selection of them to music.
The arrangements vary, from ambient electronica and Appalachian Gothic to contemporary torch song and bluegrass gospel, with scarcely a hint of Cash's trademark freight-train rhythms. Reverberating throughout the album's 16 tracks, nevertheless, is the unmistakable voice of the Man In Black.
Cash's son, John Carter Cash, served as one of the producers for the project, along with Sony's Steve Berkowitz. For Carter Cash, hearing his father's words come alive to music written by others was tantamount to communicating and having the chance to collaborate with him again.
"When the book of poems came out I heard melodies," said Carter Cash, talking about the impetus for the project by phone from London while he was on a promotional tour there last month.
"My father wasn't here to sing those melodies, but they were there. I heard his voice again - that, and I believed there were artists out there who loved him who could do his words justice."
The album opens augustly, with Kris Kristofferson intoning the words to Forever, an eight-line poem that Cash wrote in 2003, just weeks before he died.
"You tell me that I must perish/ Like the flowers that I cherish/ Nothing remaining of my name/ Nothing remembered of my fame," Kristofferson begins in a craggy baritone. Then, as Willie Nelson lightly fingerpicks the tune to Cash's 1959 hit, I Still Miss Someone, on gut-string guitar, Kristofferson goes on to assert: "But the trees that I planted/ Still are young/ The songs I sang/ Will still be sung." Hope abounds here, an unshakable faith of almost biblical proportions, in the persistence of some form of life - some sort of enduring relevance - beyond the grave.
The ease with which Kristofferson and Nelson inhabit Cash's poem is hardly surprising given their decades-long friendship with him and their mutual membership in the outlaw country supergroup, the Highwaymen. For some, however, being invited to enter the artistic consciousness of - and, in a sense, to collaborate with - someone who is no longer alive, especially someone as imposing as Cash, proved too daunting a proposition, making several prospective contributors decide not to participate.
"Each artist has their own understanding of the creative process, and, for some, this just wasn't something they would do," said Carter Cash. "To them, it would have been like asking Picasso to pick up a paint brush and finish a painting started by Monet. They'd say, 'No way. I can't go there.'"
Most of the musicians who were asked to contribute, though, relished the chance to do so, among them perennial Grammy-winner Alison Krauss. Procuring the songwriting skills of her frequent collaborator, Robert Lee Castleman, Krauss said that she approached her track - The Captain's Daughter, a poem rendered as an old Anglo-Celtic-style ballad - less like she was completing something that was unfinished and more like she was creating something new.
A similarly inventive approach guided Elvis Costello in his jazz-inflected reimagining of the poem, I'll Still Love You. "I looked at the lyric and, before I could stifle the thought, the melody appeared in my head," Costello wrote in an email. "I left Steve Berkowitz sitting at our kitchen table and went downstairs to the piano and had most of the tune completed in about 10 minutes."
"My father's words pulled the artists there," said Carter Cash of the inspiration for the music written for the project. Much of it was recorded at the Cash Cabin Studio his father built in Hendersonville, Tennessee, some 20 miles northeast of Nashville, four decades ago.
"The Brad Paisley song," Carter Cash added, referring to Gold All Over The Ground, one of several tracks based on romantic verses that Cash wrote for his wife, June Carter Cash. "is, note for note, what came out of the guitar the moment he read the poem. I was there. I was sitting right there with him."
Each of the artists who appear on the record identified strongly with the poem he or she set to music, but maybe no one so much as Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell. Indeed, listening now, it's hard not to hear his despairing contribution, You Never Knew My Mind, in light of his 2017 suicide.
"I've had those dark moments myself, just as my father had dark moments and just as Chris did," said John Carter Cash. "He and I both connected with the honesty of those lyrics." Closing the album on an aptly mystical note is country singer Jamey Johnson's ghostly arrangement of "Spirit Rider," a poem that evokes just the sort of immortality Cash longs for in "Forever." "If you cry out I might hear you on the wind," Johnson begins. "And if the mountains echo your love to me/ Wave your heart and/ I'll be riding back again."
"Johnny Cash's music has, and continues to have, a stubborn staying power," said Johnson, "and that's because it preaches. It speaks to our souls. That's why we keep coming back to it. It feeds us."