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New Album from Legendary 'Songwriter' Johnny Cash

April 29, 2024

Photo by: Alan Messer

By Ace Hartmann | Racketeer Broadcast Association  | 

  Johnny Cash Releases 'Well Alright' From Upcoming 'Songwriter'

In a remarkable unveiling of musical history, the legacy of Johnny Cash shines brighter than ever with the forthcoming release of "Songwriter," a collection of previously unheard tracks that offer a profound insight into the legendary artist's creative process.

In the early months of 1993, amidst a storied career spanning nearly four decades, the iconic Johnny Cash found himself at a crossroads. Between contracts and seeking to assist his family financially, Cash ventured into LSI Studios in Nashville. Owned by his son-in-law Mike Daniels and daughter Rosey, the studio provided the backdrop for Cash to lay down an album's worth of songwriting demos. These songs, crafted over many years, held a special significance to the Man in Black, reflecting the breadth of his experiences and emotions.

However, fate intervened when Cash crossed paths with producer Rick Rubin shortly after the fruitful recording session. The demos were set aside as Cash and Rubin embarked on a transformative musical partnership that would rejuvenate Cash's career, ensuring his legacy endured for years to come.

Fast forward three decades, and John Carter Cash, son of Johnny and June Carter Cash, unearthed the forgotten recordings. Stripping away the layers, John Carter, along with co-producer David "Fergie" Ferguson, sought to honor Cash's legacy by inviting a select group of musicians to breathe new life into the tracks. Gathering at the hallowed Cash Cabin in Hendersonville, Tenn., the ensemble aimed to capture the essence and authenticity of Cash's original recordings.

Scheduled for release on June 28th via Mercury Nashville/UMe, the aptly titled "Songwriter" showcases Cash'scover-4.jpg (771 KB) unparalleled talent as a storyteller. Featuring eleven tracks written solely by Cash himself, the album traverses the vast spectrum of human experience, from love and sorrow to spiritual salvation and redemption, all delivered in Cash's unmistakable, resonant voice.

"Songwriter" will be available for streaming, download, and in various physical formats, including CD and a range of limited edition vinyl variants, available for preorder now

The album is previewed with the release of the upbeat and infectious single, "Well Alright." With its humorous lyrics and lively instrumentation, the song channels the spirit of Cash's '50s hits, offering a glimpse into the timeless appeal of his music.

Reflecting on his father's legacy, John Carter recalls Cash's timeless advice: "follow your heart." This guiding principle informed every aspect of the album's creation, as John Carter and Fergie meticulously curated a sound that honored Cash's songwriting prowess while staying true to the spirit of the original recordings.

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.

“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."

Despite the strength of the original recordings, John Carter and Fergie sought to bring Cash's music into the modern era, enhancing the sound quality while preserving the authenticity of the tracks. The result is an album that feels both timeless and contemporary, capturing the essence of Cash's musical legacy.

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.”

“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.”

Johnny Cash-Cash Cabin-Porch with Guitar-May 1987 (Credit_Alan Messer).jpg (8.40 MB)

'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.

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.

“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."

For John Carter, "Songwriter" is a tribute to his father's enduring impact on American music. By shining a spotlight on Cash's songwriting talent, John Carter hopes to ensure that his father's contributions are recognized and celebrated for generations to come. "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."

As the release date approaches, anticipation for "Songwriter" continues to build, with fans and critics alike eagerly awaiting the opportunity to experience Cash's music in a new light. The album is a labor of love and a testament to Johnny Cash and his enduring legacy as one of America's greatest songwriters.


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