Johnny Cash – Songwriter

A historic release from the vaults of the country great...

“When I get an idea for a song it would gel in my mind for weeks or months, and then one day just like that, I’ll write it” said Johnny Cash, arguably one of the most famous country music songwriters of all time. Once again, his songwriting is taking centre stage with the release of ‘Songwriter’ which is a collection of previously unreleased songs that Johnny recorded in 1993, ten years prior to his death in September 2003.

These songwriting demos were recorded in a rare quiet period during Cash’s career at LSI Studios in Nashville and were a prelude to Johnny’s career renaissance in the nineties which saw him collaborate with Rick Rubin on a series of critically-acclaimed recordings that re-cemented his standing as one of the best American songwriters of his generation.

Thirty years on, his son John Carter Cash rediscovered the songs and stripped them back just Johnny’s vocals and guitar to highlight the power and passion of Johnny’s vocals as well to celebrate one of the world’s greatest songwriters and storytellers. John (along with a carefully-curated band) built ‘Songwriter’ based on these recordings which helped shape an incredible sounding record that sonically feels like it should  if Johnny Cash was recording today.

His distinctive vocals are as warm and rich as ever and have been further elevated by some impressive guitar playing from Marty Stuart and bassist Dave Roe, who sadly passed away not long after completing his contribution to ‘Songwriter.

Largely, ‘Songwriter’ has a nostalgic sound with the exception of the album opener ‘Hello Out There’ which despite being recorded in the early nineties was incredibly prophetical. Pondering about the star of the world, his vocals at times feel almost otherworldly and are sung with intelligence and gravitas. With lines like  ‘Hello out there/This is planet Earth/Calling Calling Calling Calling Calling’, ‘Hello Out There’ has a sense of foreboding which is elevated by the slightly menacing strings.

It was recorded at the same time that Johnny lent his lyrics to ‘The Wanderer’ which was the album closer for U2’s ‘Zooropa’ and there definitely feels like a synergy between the two tracks, both of which are centered around concern for the planet.

The songs Cash chose to record during this period were entirely personal to him and had been written over many decades, with some dating back to the mid to late ‘70s. ‘Drive On’ with its jubilant riffs and honeyed vocals is reminiscent of Cash’s take on ‘A Boy Named Sue’ and is a stark departure from his later work with Rubin which veered more on a sombre and reflective approach.

Johnny’s cheeky side and playful lyrics are omnipresent throughout the delightfully-quirky ‘Well Alright’ which tells the story of a man chatting up a woman in a laundromat. Of course, there are washing references and double entendres which shows Johnny’s humour with lines like ‘She said be gentle with my silk and lace and I said well alright!’. The galloping beat of ‘Well Alright’ feels like the younger sibling of the intro to ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ which was recorded more than four decades earlier.

The upbeat vibes continue with the beautiful “I Love You Tonite”’ which is a touching love letter to his beloved wife June Carter Cash who passed away just a few months before her husband. The lyrics talk of their life together and how he loves her ‘tonight and even more than he loved her in the sixties’. 

June’s influence on Johnny can also be found in ‘Poor Valley Girl’ which tells the story about the roots of June and her mother country music pioneer, Maybelle Carter whilst the charming ‘Have You Been to Little Rock?’ sees Johnny paying homage to his country roots.

Throughout his life, Cash struggled with addiction and ‘Like A Soldier’ is confessional and contemplative, where he compares his demons as the enemy and likened his subsequent recovery to a ‘soldier getting over a war’.

‘Songwriter’ is a meticulously-produced collection of what is likely to become Cash classics. It’s a time capsule of how Cash was feeling in the early nineties and is a reminder of his immense talents as both a singer and a songwriter and serves as a poignant and career-defining moment of the Man in Black’s enduring musical legacy.

8/10

Words: Emma Harrison // @emmahwriter

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