*Image stolen from Wikipedia and is probably copyrighted
When I was a kid, I had to share a room with my brother until we were like, ten and seven respectively. It was not, as they say, an ideal situation. Somewhere over the years I inherited a small, black-and-white, rabbit ears-antenna television set. My brother on the other hand had Santa bring him a record player. He was always quietly smarter than me. The reason my brother had asked for a record player was that he’d discovered my father had a bunch of old 50s era singles. These were small records, no bigger than 7 inches around, known as 45s because that was the RPM (revolutions per minute, I think) of the record. These 45s had a giant hole in the center and usually to play the records you had to have a round plastic adapter that you’d put in the middle of the turn table.
My father, in his youth, had amassed a collection of several dozen of these singles. They didn’t even have the paper sleeve that 45s had “in my day,” they were just naked pieces of 7 inch vinyl stuck in a wire rack, like you’d find dishes drying in the sink. These tiny discs were a virtual “History of Rock And Roll.” My brother treated that rack of records like it was the Holy Grail or the Rosetta Stone. There were songs by Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, Dion, Buddy Holly (if memory serves me, and it usually doesn’t), there were even a few Beatles songs. My brother played the crap out of those old songs. When I wasn’t watching Kojak reruns in black-and-white, I would listen with him. One of my favorite artists in that stack was always the Man In Black… Johnny Cash. I can still remember hearing “Folsom Prison Blues” out of the tinny speaker on my brother’s dime store record player… that voice was haunting and almost scary for little 10 year old me.
As the years unfurled, Johnny’s career went up and down. By the mid-90s his career was pretty much in decline, he was playing supper clubs and Nashville had largely turned their backs on him. On my part, I’d completely lost track of Johnny save for fond memories of listening to him when I was a kid. Enter producer extraordinaire, Rick Rubin. In 1994 Rubin hooked up with Johnny Cash and convinced him to do an album. It was mostly stark, acoustic tracks with just Johnny’s voice and his guitar. I was dating a woman at the time, in what was a classic “on-again, off-again” relationship. Looking back I’m not sure who was torturing who there…best not analyze that one. During one of our spats, as a peace offering this generous woman showed up with Johnny’s Rick Rubin produced album, American Recordings and it knocked me out! That haunting voice from my childhood was back and rather than scare me, it was exhilarating to hear.
As an encore, Cash and Rubin brought in Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers as their studio backing-band and recorded the superb follow-up, Unchained. It might not have had the same impact as the stunning American Recordings but it was still a great record. Emboldened by the success of the first record, Cash and Rubin broadened their musical palette and recorded songs I hadn’t thought would fit Cash. For me, as a Soundgarden fan, the best track on that record was the cover of “Rusty Cage.” It’s hard to describe what it was like to hear Johnny Cash tear into a Soundgarden song for the first time. The sheer audacity of it was jaw-dropping back then. Year’s later, I made them mistake of telling the Rock Chick that Johnny’s version of the song was definitive. As a die-hard Soundgarden fan, her reaction was…explosive… Regardless of which version you prefer, Cash does a phenomenal job on that song. Not to say Soundgarden’s original isn’t equally impactful… marriage is compromise…
I remember thinking at the time, I wonder what Chris Cornell thinks about Johnny Cash singing one of his tunes. The thought faded with the years until we were a decade into the new millennium. Soundgarden had broken up, Cornell had worked solo, with up and down results and had also been part of the great Audioslave. It was around that time, say 2011, I heard that Cornell was going on a solo acoustic tour. I heard him interviewed and he talked about Cash doing “Rusty Cage” and how much he’d liked it. He said that many fans had approached him and told him that the acoustic-based version Cash did was the first time they’d actually understood the lyrics. I don’t know if that’s what gave Cornell the idea to do an acoustic tour, but I don’t think it hurt the idea. You can find the results of that tour on the great live album, Songbook.
It appears we have come full circle. Johnny Cash over the years would jot down poetry or unrecorded lyrical ideas (if you’d rather). His son has compiled a number of those unpublished, unrecorded lyrics in a book. To commemorate that, he also recruited a number of recording artists to set those words to music. The resulting album is called Johnny Cash: Forever Words, The Music. This sort of thing is not unprecedented. There was the mini-super group The New Basement Tapes who recorded a batch of songs with unused Bob Dylan lyrics from the actual Basement Tapes era. Billy Bragg and Wilco got together and did an album of Woody Gutherie songs, Mermaid Avenue, using some old unpublished lyrics of Woody’s.
While the album, Forever Words hasn’t been released yet, there are a few tracks that have been released. It’s a real mix of artists… From Elvis Costello and John Mellencamp to Carlene Carter and Alison Krauss. There are also some newer country artists which I will avoid like the plague… Compilations are always dicey. But the artist whose name jumped out at me, and caused my earlier “full circle” remark, was the late Chris Cornell. I think this was one of the last things he recorded and I believe it marks his first posthumously released song since his untimely death (I Awoke To The Devastating News: Chris Cornell Has Passed Away, RIP). I’m still not quite over his loss… amongst others.
The song is entitled “You Never Knew My Mind,” and it is just a beautiful song. The Cash lyric is wonderful. Like Johnny doing an acoustic based “Rusty Cage,” this is an acoustic based song. It’s Cornell’s wonderful voice, acoustic guitar and some strings. Toward the end there’s some atmospheric electric guitar, quiet drums and some nice, understated backing vocals. The song builds and builds until it ends where it began with just Cornell’s voice and an acoustic guitar. The song takes me back to a word I’ve used a lot in this post… haunting. I had a person I knew, who passed away suddenly, who left me a voicemail a few days before passing. I’ve never deleted the message. It’s like holding on to a small part of that person… For some odd reason, this song reminds me of that voicemail… It’s like a hearing Chris Cornell’s voice fools me for that brief second into thinking maybe he is still here.
I don’t know how the rest of this record will be… I mean, Brad Paisley does a song… no thank you. But this song is certainly a gem worth checking out.