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8 Tracks: Beyond the grave, Johnny Cash still shows us how to make music

<em>Songwriter</em>, out June 28, features early '90s demos by Johnny Cash with new backing tracks.
Alan Messer
Songwriter, out June 28, features early '90s demos by Johnny Cash with new backing tracks.

8 Tracks is your antidote to the algorithm. Each week, NPR Music producer Lars Gotrich, with the help of his colleagues, makes connections between sounds across time. A slightly different version of this column originally ran in the NPR Music newsletter.

On My Mother's Hymn Book, a 2004 collection of gospel songs he learned from his mother, Johnny Cash sings, "My life will end in deathless sleep / Where the soul of man never dies / And everlasting joys I'll reap / Where the soul of man never dies." Cash takes refuge in what the sweet hereafter offers, but also recognizes the restlessness of the eternal.

When an artist dies, there's part of me that yearns for their familiar signatures: the way someone sings or raps, plays the guitar, coaxes unknown tones from a saxophone or lands a drum fill. I come to that music because of that person and the way they understand themselves; I trust them to set me inside their world. For this reason, I have a queasy relationship with posthumous albums: Music often made from the remnants of an artist's body of work, handled by those with varying degrees of separation from the source. In his beautiful essay and podcast on Minnie Ripperton's final album Love Lies Forever released after her death, Hanif Abdurraqib succinctly summed up the process: "It is a tapestry of well-meaning guesses, set to music."

Unreleased music in Cash's vault has been unearthed before. Rick Rubin's American series, which undoubtedly revived Cash's career, continued after The Man in Black's death in 2003. Out Among the Stars rescued 1980s sessions with countrypolitan producer Billy Sherrill. And a new album Songwriter, out June 28, will join the posthumous Cash catalog. Here's the story: In 1993, then labeless and likely listless, Johnny Cash wrote and recorded a bunch of songs at LSI Studios in Nashville. Shelved and forgotten, the recordings were rediscovered decades later by his son John Carter Cash. As a press release states, they have now been stripped back "to just Johnny's powerful, pristine vocals and acoustic guitar," but with new backing tracks.

When approaching posthumously released music, I ask myself some questions: How much was the artist involved in the process? Not much, obviously; they're gone, but sometimes they leave behind clues. Think of Arthur Russell, the musical polymath whose staggering output was only really heard in the last two decades. Beloved collections such as Love Is Overtaking Me and Calling Out of Context were pieced together from demos and half- or mostly finished studio sessions, then built from a producer's imagination and, most crucially, notebooks left behind by Russell. He left blueprints. Peter Broderick, an experimental/folk artist in his own right, was brought on to mix and restore Russell's audio, essentially taking scraps to make 2019's Iowa Dream. "I had to follow my own intuition and assurance of what I feel," he said, "but you just never know how close that is to someone's original vision." In so many words, Broderick pinpoints the conflict, but sits with discomfort and the unknown — that feels healthy and respectful to me.

Which brings me to my next question: Are the people involved family or close confidants whom the artist trusted? In the best case scenario, you get something like Mac Miller's Circles, a close-to-final product brought home by his family and producer Jon Brion. Selena's incredible Dreaming of You was realized in the months just after the Queen of Tejano Music was shot and killed. Her husband Chris Pérez says that "to be around the voice at that particular time was ... really painful." There are some posthumous albums made with good hearts, but mixed results (see: Faith Evans and The Notorious B.I.G.'s The King & I), then others just full of questionable ick (again, Selena, but with her voice digitally aged).

A more practical question: Has the artist expressed any wishes regarding their music after death? Anderson .Paak famously got a tattoo on his arm that reads: "When I'm Gone Please Don't Release Any Posthumous Albums Or Songs With My Name Attached Those Were Just Demos And Never Intended To Be Heard By The Public." Not sure that's legally binding, but straightforward all the same. Too bad Prince was against tattoos; it might have better communicated what he wanted done with his archives.

But perhaps the most important question raised in thinking about posthumous music: How do I feel about all of this? Does it feel good... or gross? Both? The first single from Cash's Songwriter leads off this edition of 8 Tracks. The song got me in my feels about music made after a beloved artist dies — in this case, 21 years later — and what matters most in doing so. Or, as NPR contributor Briana Younger surmised in a review for a different posthumous release, "It could never be enough, but it'll have to do." So check out that unreleased Johnny Cash song, plus new music by Arooj Aftab, Cassandra Jenkins and a transcendent Karen Dalton cover.

Johnny Cash, "Well Alright"

"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 got?' " The way my eyes bulged out of my sockets when I heard that opening line. Johnny Cash, that sly sonuvagun, wrote a Dear Penthouse song. Who knows what the original recording sounded like, but here, Cash's sturdy, storytelling voice is accompanied by the classic Tennessee Three sound, provided by old bandmates — including guitarist Marty Stuart and bassist Dave Roe — plus drummer Pete Abbott. You can practically hear Cash chuckle and, well, that's all right by me.

Danielson, "Come and Save Me"

From the late '60s until his death in 2008, Christian rock pioneer Larry Norman used his voice, in the words of biographer Gregory Alan Thornbury, as a "machine for killing complacency in religious people." Personally, my favorite songs captured a curious empathy. Some lyrics were found among "lost" papers and presented to Daniel Smith, ringleader of the 30-year-old indie-pop gospel group Danielson (or Danielson Famile or Brother Danielson, depending on the project). Late in his life, Norman expressed admiration for Smith's idiosyncratic-yet-earnest expression of faith, which makes sense to me: Both embrace radical compassion for a broken humanity, no matter one's belief system. This posthumous collaboration, a sweet and sweeping balm for the lonely, feels like a legacy passed on. Fred Armisen, a longtime Danielson fan, stars in the short film that accompanies it.

Pylon Reenactment Society, "3x3"

When it comes to Athens, Ga., R.E.M., The B-52s and Pylon should all be mentioned in the same breath. In 2014, original singer Vanessa Briscoe Hay formed this repertoire band to perform Pylon's music, but also write new songs. "3x3," written in 1979 but never recorded, not only restores but extends the spirit of Pylon, dialing up accessible and avant-garde strains of post-punk with a party atmosphere. When I saw Pylon Reenactment Society in Asheville, N.C., recently, "3x3" naturally slotted between the classic "Cool" and "Flowers Everywhere" — I danced the entire time.

Kara Jackson, "Right, Wrong or Ready"

No one sang other people's songs quite like Karen Dalton: She could change the meaning and the mood with the dimension of her voice. "Right, Wrong or Ready" was originally written by Major Wiley, but truly became Dalton's own on her 1969 debut. Kara Jackson, a poet who wowed us with her own debut last year, takes some cues from Dalton — namely, a gnarled understanding of the blues — but slows everything to a dreamy sigh.

Arooj Aftab, "Raat Ki Rani"

Nobody can do Sade but Sade, but Arooj Aftab — here evoking a certain Sade-ness — does understand that sensuality is an action that flows like a soft current. Aftab has a voice that slips through consciousness, like a lingering memory curled around a melody, so it's somewhat thrilling — titillating even — to hear that same soothing voice yearn with steady assurance for romantic love over a sumptuous harp groove.

Tems, "Love Me JeJe"

The song of summer doesn't need heat, but it does need to sizzle. Enter a contender: "Love Me JeJe" borrows its hook from Nigerian Afro-soul singer Seyi Sodimu's 1997 hit of the same name, but Tems — herself a Nigerian singer-songwriter on the rise — leans into a twilight tenderness with soft synths and an intricate drum pattern. It's a quiet beckoning to love, but a communal one lifted up in a call-and-response that will echo across stages and clubs all summer long.

Cassandra Jenkins, "Only One"

Cassandra Jenkins' "Only One" is, at its core, a love song, one measured by questions of time ("How long will this last?"), but also one's threshold for pain. Love hurts, or so some other song tells us, but this love, dimly lit by synths and whispered saxophone, is a "stick figure sisyphus." What a strange and compelling metaphor for how we return to someone, flimsy and beaten down, but willing to fight.

Isaiah Collier & The Chosen Few, "The Almighty"

The title track to The Almighty is more than 18 minutes long. Could I have chosen one of the "shorter" tracks from the Chicago saxophonist's outrageously beautiful new album? Sure, but that would deny y'all the record's colossal closing. Isaiah Collier's tone carves a spiritual, serrated shape, not unlike early '70s Pharoah Sanders. His hard-hitting jazz quartet is joined by additional strings and horns — together they build (and build) with maximalist ecstasy, layering joyous chaos with a revved-up theme that summons the dawn of time.

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