Johnny Cash Newly Discovered 1993 Album, ‘Songwriter,’ Arrives

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Johnny Cash at the Cash Cabin, Hendersonville, Tennessee – May 1987 (Photo © Alan MESSER; used with permission)

Newly discovered Johnny Cash songs from 1993, found by John Carter Cash, the son of Johnny and June Carter Cash, some 30 years later, have been released on an album, simply and aptly titled Songwriter. The younger Cash 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. Songwriter arrived June 28, 2024, via Mercury Nashville/UMe. Listen to the playful “Well Alright,” the instantly familiar “Spotlight,” and many others below, along with a video for “Hello Out There” that stars the legend’s youngest granddaughter. The album is available in the U.S. here and in the U.K. here.

From the original April 23 album announcement: In early 1993, 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.

Returning the focus to Cash’s own songwriting, the 11-track Songwriter 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.

“Well Alright” is an upbeat and infectious tune about finding love in of all places, a laundromat. With its humorous lyrics, galloping beat and taut acoustic upright bass, it harkens back to such ‘50s Cash hits such as “Get Rhythm,” “Five Feet High and Rising,” “Cry! Cry! Cry!” and “Big River.”

After stripping the original recordings back to just Johnny’s vocals and guitar, John Carter Cash 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 honor and amplify Johnny’s songwriting and timeless voice, while staying true to the spirit of the 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, 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.

In the powerful opening song, “Hello Out There,” Cash sounds as if he’s reaching out from the beyond concerned about mankind and the state of the world as he bellows, “Hello out there/This is planet Earth/Calling Calling Calling Calling Calling,” facilitating his own echoes. As the “cleverly disguised gospel song” continues, as his son describes it, the song crescendos with a glorious swirling of Stuart’s spacey guitar licks, strings, steel guitar, pounding drums, the angelic backing vocals of Ana Cristina Cash and Stinson, and Johnny’s prescient message of salvation, sonically falling somewhere between cosmic country and gospel.

The song’s video stars Johnny and June Carter Cash’s youngest granddaughter, six-year-old Grace June Cash, the daughter of John Carter and his wife Ana Cristina Cash. As Grace sets off alone on an adventure and comes upon the Cash Cabin. Inside, she communes with the grandparents she never knew through family treasures, photos and Johnny and June’s personal belongings, including Johnny’s Bible and June’s banjolin and a variety of items such as family fishing poles, Johnny’s desk from his office, his portable Ampex tape recorder and Martin Parlor guitar, and June’s 1890’s Steinway upright piano.

Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys provides a bluesy guitar solo on the track “Spotlight.”

“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, they knew his energies, his movements, and they let him be the guide. It was just playing with Johnny once again. That was the energy of the creation.”

Watch the official album trailer

By recording a whole new band, John Carter and Fergie, along with engineer Trey Call, brought Cash into the modern era and made an incredible sounding record that sounds like if he 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. We just tried to act like he was there: WWJCD, right?”

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 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. One highlight, “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.

Related: Our Album Rewind of Cash’s 1996 LP, Unchained, recorded with producer Rick Rubin and Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers

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.

Vince Gill lends his 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.”

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.”

Johnny Cash Songwriter Track Listing
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

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