Album | Johnny Cash – Songwriter

Songwriter is the latest posthumously released album showcasing the talent of the great Johnny Cash – and this one is perhaps his most personal yet. Co-produced by his son John Carter Cash and longtime sound engineer for ‘The Man in Black’, David ‘Fergie’ Ferguson, Songwriter brings Cash’s wonderfully rich vocals into the modern era.

After discovering his father’s previously unreleased 1993 recordings, Cash joined forces with Ferguson to strip them back to vocals and acoustic guitar and then layer them up again to sound as they would if Cash had recorded them today. There is strong support from musicians who played with Cash such as guitarist Marty Stuart and the late bassist Dave Roe, and from special guests such as vocalists Ana Cristina Cash and Vince Gill, to name a few.

Recorded in Johnny Cash’s private retreat in Nashville, the Cash Cabin, this latest album emphasises his great skill as a songwriter and storyteller. He sings of the human condition, of love, sorrow, survival and redemption, infused with his trademark humour – which comes to the mischievous fore in ‘Well Alright’, a love story sparked in a laundromat of all places, Cash describing the washing process to the twanging of an electric guitar.

Each song tells a story: ‘Hello Out There’, which John Carter Cash believes was written about the Voyager spaceship, with its outlandish sound effects, ethereal guitar lines, and beautiful climax; the bluesy strings of ‘Spotlight’, about life in the limelight and the need to keep weaknesses to yourself; and ‘Drive On’ describing the hardships faced by veterans of the Vietnam War, trying to fit into everyday life whilst the musically induced helicopter thrum and chatter of the monkeys in the jungle lurk in the background.

‘I Love You Tonite’, a love letter to Cash’s second wife June Carter Cash, is filled with gorgeous guitar and bass lines and warm backing vocals, as Cash reminisces about a love that kept growing through the decades; in ‘Have You Been to Little Rock?’, his fondness for the sunbathed farmland and the people of the town shine through; and ‘She Sang Sweet Baby James’ is perhaps the most touching track, a mandolin-infused tale of a young single mother struggling to make ends meet and facing life’s challenges alone, comforting herself and her child with the eponymous James Taylor song.

A similar longing for escapism is captured in ‘Poor Valley Girl’, about June’s mother, which was likely written just after Maybelle Carter’s death in 1978 and portrays a valley girl of small means yearning to explore the world; ‘Soldier Boy’ shows us a boy leaving home to fulfil this dream, heading out on foot, then a plane and a ship as a soldier, Cash warning quietly that war will take his youthful innocence; and ‘Sing It Pretty Sue’ gives us a glimpse of the price of stardom, a melancholic lover letting go of the sweetheart he is unwilling to share with the world as she launches her career as a singer.

Songwriter closes the chapter on a personal note with ‘Like A Soldier’, which describes Johnny Cash’s struggle with addiction and his journey to recovery, becoming a new man with new possibilities and full of gratitude for those who supported him through these dark times.

According to Ferguson, at the end of each album recording, Cash would lean back and state “I think it’s the best record I’ve ever made”. So, take a seat with the maestro and let his latest gem wash over you.