Ask any musician about their biggest hopes and dreams and once you get past the superfluous collection of cars, homes and other lifestyle luxuries of which I will never encounter or experience, I'd hazard a guess that most of them will probably say they hope their music lives on long after they've left this mortal coil.
While a diverse range of musicians are found on the release—Cash's daughter Rosanne Cash and stepdaughter Carlene Carter, longtime friends and fellow Highwaymen Kris Kristofferson & Willie Nelson, Brad Paisley, Alison Krauss, Elvis Costello, Jamey Johnson and the late Chris Cornell comprise approximately half of the artists featured on the album—the common thread running through each of the record's songs is that the lyrics were penned by Cash.
The lyrics were among approximately 2,500 pieces that John Carter Cash—the son of Johnny and June Carter Cash—discovered in the time following his father's passing in 2003.
"Going through cabinets that were in my father's office, I discovered these notebooks that were filled with poetry, lyrics and fragments written by my father," Carter Cash tells us.
Together with music industry veteran Steve Berkowitz, Carter Cash assembled a collection of his father's previously unpublished words and released Forever Words: The Unknown Poems in 2016.
"The book served to reaffirm my father's strength as an American cultural literary figure. He was an amazing writer whose work touched a lot of people. But there's no denying that the book laid the foundation that would lead to the making of the Forever Words album. But in reading my father's words, it was almost impossible to not picture music accompanying them at some point."
Recorded at the Cash Cabin Studio in Tennessee over the course of approximately two years, the diverse range of artists included on the album is one of Carter Cash's proudest accomplishments. While the inclusion of Kristofferson, Nelson, Rosanne Cash and Carlene Carter was somewhat of a no-brainer, enlisting artists like Jewel and Elvis Costello, whose affinity for Johnny Cash might not have been as pronounced as others, was an important facet of making sure the album was as well-rounded as Johnny Cash's fanbase was.
"Some of the people involved in recording songs for this album were very close to my father, and others didn't know him other than his music. What all of these artists have in common was the impact that my father's music had upon them," Carter Cash says.
John Carter Cash with parents Johnny and June.
"If you look at my father's history with music, he recorded Nine Inch Nails and Soundgarden songs, and was always open and willing to explore different kinds of music, so he was a diverse artist in his own right. But when you looked at his fans, he has the same number of fans that love traditional bluegrass, hard rock and hip-hop. They all have the same Johnny Cash records in their collection. Those are the people that love my father's music, so bringing together a variety of artists on Forever Words was a natural process."
While there is an unquestionable current of poignancy running the length of Forever Words, Carter Cash says there was a number of artists he approached to take part in the project that politely declined the offer.
"Some were nervous about the prospect of setting music to my father's words and just said they weren't comfortable with it, which I completely respected and understood. But there was a number of artists like Jamey Johnson and Brad Paisley that, when they saw the words, they connected with them almost immediately. There were times the thrust of creativity took a little longer though."
Carter Cash shares the late Chris Cornell was one of the latter instances. The singer brought together two separate Cash works—"You Never Knew My Mind" and "I Never Knew Your Mind"—and melded them into one.
In a video documenting the making of Cornell's contribution to Forever Words, "You Never Knew My Mind," the singer recalls having met Cash on a couple of occasions, but also isn't shy in discussing the influence his work had on him as an artist.
Paying tribute to one of your favorite artists is sometimes easier said than done, however.
"It took Chris longer because he really wanted to pay homage to my father and not overstep any boundaries or take any liberties with the words," Carter Cash recalls. "And the fact is, Chris' contribution to the album has only grown more intense with his passing. It's unquestionably one of the most powerful pieces I've ever been a part of, but it also sadly couldn't have been better suited to him given the tragic end he met. Each of the songs on the record impact my soul, but Chris' is the one that makes me cry. He had such a great spirit."