top of page

Treasure from the Johnny Cash Vault

Songwriter is a refreshing collection of original Johnny Cash songs


Got a spare 30 minutes? And want to hear 11 original songs that you have never heard before from one of the great voices in modern music? Then listen to Songwriter by Johnny Cash. It will be a half an hour well spent!


This is a somewhat out-of-the-blue album - master-minded by John Carter Cash - though Songwriter’s actual release on June 28 has received a fair share of media publicity, as might be expected with the first bunch of self-penned songs released by the country legend since his death in 2003.


The songs were written by Cash over several decades of his illustrious career. And in 1993, when he was between recording contracts and somewhat lost in musical direction, he decided to record a demo containing these songs. John Carter Cash, his son with June Carter, played on the recordings.


The demo was shelved a year later when Cash teamed up with legendary producer Rick Rubin to release American Recordings. The rest, as they say, is history. For Rubin not only resurrected Cash’s career, some say he actually saved it. There would be another hugely-successful five albums produced by Rubin in the American Recording series – the last two posthumously-released in 2006 & 2010.


A little over a year ago, Carter Cash rediscovered the 1993 demos and decided, with old family friend and co-producer David “Fergie” Ferguson, to strip back the recordings to just Cash’s vocals and guitars. They then enlisted some of Nashville’s best musicians – including country legend Marty Stuart and the late Dave Roe who both played with Johnny – to overdub a fresh backing.


“We went straight to the roots, as far as the sound, and tried not to overly enhance it,” said Carter Cash. “We built it as though 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 studios, so we just tried to act like he was there.”


The album has received instant acclaim.


The Rolling Stone review probably had the most pertinent response: “So Songwriter asks the question: What would Johnny Cash have sounded like if he had never met Rubin?”


No Depression described the release as “maybe the best news of the year” and said “the powerful album adds more luster to Cash’s enduring legacy.”


ND added: “These 11 songs, which he wrote mostly in the late 1980’s and early 1990, capture the richness and purity of his voice, and the clarity of these intimate recordings give the listener the feeling of being in the studio with Cash, as if he is singing directly to them.”


The Guardian opined: “Despite the record’s tortuous gestation, the results are surprisingly good.” And Variety described Songwriter as “treasures in the Johnny Cash vault that have remained unmined, despite assumptions that everything interesting might have been brought into the light in the posthumous recordings that came out in the years following his 2003 release.”


In fact, three of the 11 originals have seen the light of day before, though not from this 1993 demo session. “Sing It Pretty Sue” was on Cash’s 1962 The Sound of Johnny Cash, while Rubin re-recorded Cash’s memorable tribute to Vietnam veterans “Drive On” and “Like a Soldier” for the original American Recordings release.


Several of the songs reflect the Man in Black's playful sense of humour, his humanity and his look on the sunny side of life, given his periods of drug and alcohol addiction and subsequent rehabilitation treatment.


The album’s lead single, “Well Alright,” released in April, sees Cash at his tongue-in-check best with a singalong tale of seduction at the laundromat.

I met her at the laundromat she was washing extra hot

I said don’t you need a little help with that big load you’ve got

She said no but did a double take and then she smiled and said I might

As I rolled up my sleeves I said to myself well alright


As expected there is an ode to wife June, dutifully titled “I Love You Tonite.” And this track has retained, from the original, the backing vocals of the great Waylon Jennings.

It contains a very cryptic stanza:

And I love you tonight even more than I loved you in the sixties

And I know that we are right even more than I knew it in the seventies

Oh baby ain’t we a sight and you believe we made it through the eighties

And will we make the millennium well we might

I love you tonite


Both would indeed see in the 21st century. June died in 2003, almost four months before Johnny.


There is also another touching, very melodic, tribute to June -  and her famous mother Maybelle from The Carter Family - on “Poor Valley Girl.” Her mother became famous/Maybelle and her guitar/With sisters Helen and Anita/The family was four star. And on this track, Carter Cash and Ferguson rope in the current best voice in Nashville, Vince Gill, for the backing vocals.


But perhaps the most endearing composition of Cash in this delightful collection is a tender lullaby titled “She Sang Sweet Baby James.” He cleverly tells the heartfelt tale of a lonely truck-driving single mother singing the James Taylor classic as her baby falls asleep.

She had a heart full of love

For her baby, her life and James Taylor

Taylor wrote “Sweet Baby James” for his young nephew who shares his name. He still sings it in concert and apparently it came to him while traveling interstate across Americana. Cash intelligently integrates appropriate words from the Taylor song into his own lullaby: 

And she flew all the turnpikes, the mountains and sea

And she looked to the skies where heaven should be

So could it be there’s no heaven for me

The only difference in my life and hell are the plains

So she sang Sweet Baby James


As more tracks are played, it becomes plainly obvious that Carter Cash has achieved what he and Ferguson set out to do. Yes, the fresh backing, both music and vocals, certainly adds enhancement. But nowhere does it prevent Cash’s glorious vocals from being there with you in a room.


It is a fact that many of Cash’s smash-hits, including “Folsom Prison Blues,” “I Walk the Line” and “Cry Cry Cry,” were indeed his own compositions. But what makes this particular selection so appealing is that it reflects the inner Cash – homely, devoted and humorous – during a period when he was struggling to find his way in music.


There may have been a plethora of Johnny Cash compilations and resurrected library output released since his departure more than twenty years ago, but none qualify for the “treasure” category as Songwriter does.


Paul Cutler

Editor Crossroads – Americana Music Appreciation





bottom of page