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  • Writer's pictureStevie Connor

Johnny Cash's Songwriting Takes Centre Stage On New Album Of Previously Unreleased Recordings


Johnny Cash

Photo Credit: Alan Messer



In early 1993, the legendary Johnny Cash found himself between contracts in his then nearly 40-year career and recorded an album’s worth of songwriting demos at LSI Studios in Nashville of songs he’d written over many years. LSI at the time was owned by his son-in-law Mike Daniels and daughter Rosey, and he wanted to help the family financially while also record some songs special to him. Not long after the fruitful session, Johnny met producer Rick Rubin, and the recordings were shelved as the two embarked on an important and prolific musical partnership that revitalized the Man in Black’s career that would last the rest of his life.  


Some thirty years later, John Carter Cash, the son of Johnny and June Carter Cash, rediscovered the songs and stripped them back to just Johnny’s powerful, pristine vocals and acoustic guitar. Along with co-producer David “Fergie” Ferguson, the two invited a handpicked group of musicians that played with Johnny, including guitarist Marty Stuart and the late bassist Dave Roe, along with drummer Pete Abbott and several others, to the Cash Cabin, a hallowed space in Hendersonville, Tenn. where Johnny would write, record and relax, to breathe new life into the tracks, taking the sound back to the roots and heart of the songs.


Releasing June 28th via Mercury Nashville/UMe/Universal Music Canada, the simply and aptly titled Songwriter, features songs written solely by Johnny Cash, one of America’s greatest songwriters and storytellers. Returning the focus to Johnny’s own songwriting, the 11-track collection showcases the breadth of his writing, one that has always represented the great expanse of the human condition: there are songs of love, family, sorrow, beauty, spiritual salvation, survival, redemption, and of course, some of the lighthearted humor Johnny was known for, all sung in his unmistakable, trademark, resonant voice. 


Songwriter will be available to stream and download, as well as on CD and a variety of vinyl options, including standard black and several limited edition color variants.



Songwriter is being previewed today with the release of the first single, “Well Alright,” an upbeat and infectious tune about finding love in of all places, the laundry mat. With its humorous lyrics, galloping beat and taut acoustic upright bass “Well Alright” is prime Johnny Cash, harkening back to his ‘50s hits such as “Get Rhythm,” “Five Feet High and Rising,” “Cry! Cry! Cry!” and “Big River.”


“Dad’s advice with anything, whether it was life or making music, was always ‘follow your heart,” said John Carter. And it is this truism of his father’s that let guide him every step of the way when making Songwriter. After stripping the original recordings back to just Johnny’s vocals and guitar, he reached out to Fergie, a longtime friend and Johnny’s go-to engineer for nearly thirty years, and the two set off to create an album that would honour and amplify Johnny’s songwriting and timeless voice, while staying true to the spirit of the recordings. Along with John Carter, Fergie is arguably one of the people that knew best what Johnny liked when it came to recording as they worked together beginning in the early 1980s when he was Cowboy Jack Clement’s in-house engineer where Johnny often liked to record. He would go on to work with him on many records, including most of his Mercury albums and the acclaimed American Recordings series with Rick Rubin, even recording his last-ever songs in his final days in 2003. “He was always my hero and I just felt like the luckiest guy in the world to get to record him,” said Fergie.


When it came time to assemble a band, two musicians were must-haves: guitarist Marty Stuart, who played with Johnny in his backing band The Tennessee Three from 1980-86, and the late, great upright bassist Dave Roe, who toured in Johnny’s band, beginning in the early ‘90s and lasting nearly a decade. For Roe, the experience was a chance for a do-over as he actually played on the original ‘93 session, but despite being a great electric bass player was so new to upright bass that his playing was lacking. In fact, after a gig around this same time, Johnny famously gave Roe money to take lessons and said he had six months to learn. Roe would go on to become one of the best slap bass players in the world and play on hundreds of albums before his death in 2023. Songwriter was likely one of his last sessions.


Drummer, Pete Abbott, of Average White Band fame, among many other bands and accolades, was brought in to complete the trio who both recorded together and separately at the Cash Cabin, the sanctuary and studio space that Johnny built on his property in 1979 and where John Carter continues to record. Several other of Nashville’s best, such as Ana Cristina Cash (background vocals), Matt Combs (acoustic guitar, mandolin, strings), Mike Rojas (B3 organ, piano), Russ Pahl (acoustic & electric guitar, bass, dobro, steel) and Sam Bacco (congas, percussion) were enlisted to round out the core band for the majority of the album, while others like session great and Grand Ole Opry guitarist, Kerry Marx, and vocalist Harry Stinson guested on select songs. “All those guys are the best, just cream of the crop,” said Fergie.


Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys provides a bluesy guitar solo on the track “Spotlight” and Vince Gill lends his dulcet vocals to “Poor Valley Girl.” Johnny’s good friend, outlaw country legend, Waylon Jennings, sang on two songs in the original session, “I Love You Tonite” and “Like A Soldier.”


“Nobody plays Cash better than Marty Stuart, and Dave Roe of course played with dad for many years,” said John Carter. “The musicians that came in were just tracking with dad, you know, recording with dad, just as, in the case of Marty and Dave, they had many times before, so they knew his energies, his movements, and they let him be the guide. It was just playing with Johnny once again, and that's what it was. That was the energy of the creation.”

While the playing of the musicians on the original 1993 recordings was strong, the sound quality left something to be desired as it placed the songs into a particular time. By recording a whole new band, John Carter and Fergie, along with engineer Trey Call, brought Johnny into the modern era and made an incredible sounding record that sounds like if Johnny recorded today.


“We just went rudimentary,” said John Carter of the approach. “We went straight to the roots, as far as the sound, and tried not to overly enhance it. We built as if dad was in the room. That's what we tried to do. Between the both of us, Fergie and I have spent thousands of hours with dad in the recording studio, so we just tried to act like he was there: WWJCD, right?”


“I think this record is the way I would have liked to have made one if I would have ever been in charge of one, before Rick Rubin or after Jack Clement,” said Fergie. “I’ve known John Carter since he was a boy, so it was great to finally work with him. He gave me a lot of leeway, especially in terms of grooves and things. We went right along the same page. There wasn’t ever a conversation or plan about an end product, it was just let's do the best we can do.”


Songwriter kicks off in a mighty way with the opening track, “Hello Out There,” a prescient song that sounds like Johnny reaching out from the beyond concerned about mankind and the state of the world as he sings with gravitas, “Hello out there/This is planet Earth/Calling Calling Calling Calling Calling, facilitating his own echoes, before continuing, “Hello out there/our net worth is/Falling Falling Falling Falling Falling.” As the song continues, it crescendos with a glorious swirling of Marty Stuart’s spacey guitar licks, strings, steel guitar, pounding drums, angelic voices, and Johnny’s message of salvation, sonically falling somewhere between cosmic country and gospel. Recorded just before Johnny was recruited by U2 for Zooropa album closer, “The Wanderer,” the songs could be celestial cousins of sorts. “I believe dad wrote it about the Voyager spaceship sometime around when it launched,” said John Carter. “I remember him sitting in Cowboy’s office and singing it for him.”


At the time of the original recording, Johnny was in a great place both mentally and vocally. The songs he chose to record were personal to him and had been written over many decades, with some dating back to the mid to late ‘70s. “I Love You Tonite” is a love letter to his beloved wife June Carter Cash while “Poor Valley Girl” is about both June and her mother, country pioneer, Maybelle Carter, likely written in the wake of her passing in 1978. “Drive On” was inspired by the chronic pain he suffered from due to a broken jaw in the early ‘90s and is about the hardships that were endured by veterans in the Vietnam War. “I think he wanted to understand in his heart, to find peace with his own physical pain, that there were others out there who had pains that were greater, who had PTSD that was more profound, to gain more humility or to gain more acceptance of his own condition,” said John Carter who along with Wesley Orbison, closes the song out with some dueling psychedelic guitars.


Meanwhile, "Like A Soldier” is about his struggle with addiction and ultimately recovery. “It's something that that he wrote after his first stint in a recovery center,” said John Carter. “He felt like he was like a soldier getting over a war. The opponent that he had been fighting, his enemy had been addiction, and he was coming into a new life and had the great opportunity for healing. That's where the song came from.” Both “Drive On” and “Like A Soldier” were included with different recordings and arrangements on Johnny’s first American Recordings album in 1994, but these are the very first recordings.


Other tracks like the reverential “Have You Been to Little Rock?” sees Johnny expressing pride for his homeland over a beautiful, traditional melody, while “She Sang Sweet Baby James,” is a tender song about a young single mother singing James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James” to comfort her baby. Johnny was a fan of Taylor’s ever since he performed on the first season of “The Johnny Cash Show” in 1971. Johnny revisits a lesser-known gem of his with “Sing It Pretty Sue,” originally released in 1962 on The Sound of Johnny Cash.


In the early ‘90s as country music was changing, Johnny found himself at a lull in his career, despite his songwriting and voice remaining strong. “My dad was probably just as clear as at any point in his life and I think that voice, which was kind of ignored at the time, needs to be heard,” said John Carter. “The man at that age, at that specific point in his life, deserves more attention and focus because he sadly didn’t get as much as he should.”


For John Carter, working on Johnny’s music is a form of catharsis and communion with his dad. “It’s not about selling Johnny Cash, he would be doing that himself,” said John Carter. “I'm grateful that this record is here, even if it was only for me, because it reminds me of who my father was, and I do believe there are people out there that knew him on somewhat of a level that I did, that will be just as touched,” said John Carter. “But I also believe that there are people out there that have never heard my father's music that will find new interest in hearing this, hearing this album and hearing my father's voice. I hope that gleans some curiosity in some people where they dig further, and they discover more because there's a lot to see within those pages.”


As for what Johnny might think about Songwriter, “I would think Johnny would say what he said about every record that I worked on with him, every record I think he ever made, when he got to the end of it, he always said, “I think it's the best record I’ve ever made,” said Fergie. “You could count on that. I could just hear him say that. I think he'd be really proud of it.”


Ultimately, Songwriter is all about putting the spotlight back on Johnny’s songwriting. “I wanted it to be songs that mostly people hadn't heard and that paid close attention to who he was as a songwriter and who he was as an American voice,” said John Carter. “One of my most important focuses in the past 10 years is to make sure that history, as best that I can possibly, is to give history the opportunity to notice him as the great writer he is. Bob Dylan says he's one of the greatest writers of all of American written music and I agree. I want to put that in the forefront. His writing voice specifically is a certain voice, that I think if America wants to know their history, that's a good place to look. Johnny Cash is definitely one true voice that we can listen to, specifically to his writings.”


Johnny Cash - Songwriter

 

JOHNNY CASH – SONGWRITER TRACKLISTING

CD/DIGITAL

  1. Hello Out There

  2. Spotlight

  3. Drive On

  4. I Love You Tonite

  5. Have You Ever Been to Little Rock?

  6. Well Alright

  7. She Sang Sweet Baby James

  8. Poor Valley Girl

  9. Soldier Boy

  10. Sing It Pretty Sue

  11. Like A Soldier

 

VINYL

Side A

  1. Hello Out There

  2. Spotlight

  3. Drive On

  4. I Love You Tonite

  5. Have You Ever Been To Little Rock?

Side B

  1. Well Alright

  2. She Sang Sweet Baby James

  3. Poor Valley Girl

  4. Soldier Boy

  5. Sing It Pretty Sue

  6. Like A Soldier




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