Son of Johnny Cash, June Carter publishes book of father’s poems

July 1, 2022 | WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Johnny Cash's 'Forever Words' (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — He wasn’t a “Boy Named Sue;” he was their beloved son.

John Carter Cash — the only son of Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash — just published his father’s personal poems in the new book “Forever Words: The Unknown Poems.” Published by Blue Rider Press, the book is available just in time for the holiday season in hardback and e-book at $25.

“My father was a prolific writer and had [scribblings] on pieces of paper tucked away,” Cash told WTOP. “When he passed away, we went through his office and there were all these different writings, perhaps over 200. … I realized there were some beautiful words here. There was a story told in a way that had never been stated before. It struck me as something beautiful. … I believe that it was something that dad would’ve liked to have seen released if it was put together in the right way.”

So, Cash compiled the poems into 41 chapters, including images of the handwritten documents.

“In the world we live today, everybody types,” Cash said. “My father hand-wrote things, a lot of great writers did. There’s probably something lost now. There’s much to be seen in the actual handwritten document, the person’s character, who they were. … My dad’s handwriting over the years changed.”

These handwritten poems range from the comedic to the profound.

“I love ‘Don’t Make a Movie About Me,’ tongue-in-cheek,” Cash said with a laugh. “I also love ‘I Heard It On the News,’ which is a profound insight. ‘I heard on the news that there was a lull in the fighting in Vietnam.’ It talks about how they shut down the war on both sides to go plant the rice crops. In the end, he says, ‘What kind of animal is man that he would pause in his killing to go about his business of preparing for the living, knowing that he will ultimately return to the business of killing?'”

Such masterful lyrics have earned the respect of music’s greatest songwriters.

“Bob Dylan himself cites my father as one of America’s greatest poets and mentions ‘Big River,'” Cash said. “[Quoting] ‘I taught the weeping willow how to cry / Showed the clouds how to cover up a clear blue sky / The tears I cried for that woman are gonna flood you Big River / And I’m gonna sit right here until I die.’ That’s pretty strong lyrics. It’s poetry. My dad had a way of saying things simply but just as beautifully and accurately as any great poet, cut from the very roots of the American soul.”

Throughout his career, Johnny Cash won 19 Grammys and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Gospel Music Hall of Fame, not to mention recognition at the Kennedy Center Honors. But beyond the accolades, “Forever Words” captures the man inside.

“For one thing, he was a man of light and laughter. That’s not as well recognized sometimes, and that’s definitely in here,” Cash said. “There’s views into the very nature of his darkness and shortcomings in these pages. And there’s a lot of insight into the light and great endurance of his character at the end of his life. In the face of adversity, loss, seemingly insurmountable pain and the physical frailties that he had, he still continued. … He faced this darkness — and his light and strength shown.”

How was he as a father on the home front?

“He was always my best friend growing up. He truly was,” Cash said. “We spent a lot of time fishing, doing outdoors activities. I got to travel on the road with him a great deal. I went from city to city with him. I’d been to 26 countries by the time I was 4 years old. Just had a chance to really see the world and meet a lot of people and make great friends that I wouldn’t have had the opportunity otherwise.”

During one road trip, his father pointed out the very Folsom Prison he made famous.

“He showed it to me from the outside, but they wouldn’t bring the toddler in Folsom,” Cash said. “When I was young, I remember driving past it in the bus and them talking about it. I actually had a chance to go into San Quentin [State Prison] the other day, the prison itself, and that was amazing.”

After the birth of his son, Johnny Cash would tinker the lyrics to his comedic tune “Boy Named Sue.”

“At the end of the song, he would say, ‘If I ever had a boy, I would name him Bill or Frank or George.’ [After I was born] he’d say, ‘Well, actually I did have a boy and here he is: John Carter Cash.’ He’d bring me up on stage and I would take a bow, from the time I could walk until I was about 7. So he would bring me up and say, ‘Thank God he didn’t name me Sue.” I was the boy that was not named Sue!”

Soon after, Johnny and June recorded a song in his honor called “I Got a Boy (And His Name is John),” paying tribute to their only child together among six half-siblings. Like his half-sister Roseanne Cash, John Carter Cash is an artist in his own right, producing country records for legends such as Loretta Lynn, George Jones, Brooks & Dunn and even his own mother’s Grammy-winning album “Press On.”

“It was about due time that she have the opportunity to go in and make her own music,” Cash said proudly. “It was a beautiful thing that she was able to do it. My father was right there with her in the studio when she did ‘Press On’ and ‘Wildfire,’ which both went on to win Grammys, and he was supportive of her. She was an accomplished artist unto her own right and deserved the recognition.”

He also wrote his mother’s biography “Anchored in Love,” which became the Lifetime movie “Ring of Fire” (2013) starring Jewel Kilcher and Matt Ross. The film joined other biopics like “Walk the Line” (2005), starring an Oscar-nominated Joaquin Phoenix and an Oscar-winning Reese Witherspoon.

“You’d have to have a 32-hour movie to tell the whole story,” Cash said. “But ‘Walk the Line’ unto itself painted an accurate and beautiful picture of my parents’ love affair and that’s about all the two hours could afford to do. There was a good bit that was not touched on — the depths of my father’s spiritual character, he and my mother’s intellectual connection — but it did tell a beautiful love story.”

Now, after all the movies, John Carter Cash invites us into this book of poems from the very pen of his father, his soul present all around the margins of the pages, documenting his legacy for all time.

“My favorite is the one that’s on the back of the book: ‘You tell me that I must perish, like the flowers that I cherish, nothing remaining of my name, nothing remembered of my fame. But the trees that I planted still are young, the songs that I sing will still be sung.’ That was written just days before he passed away. The fact that he’d lost my mother and was moving on out of this world — he knew it was coming very soon — he could still see the light of hope and endurance of the goodness of his legacy.”

Click here for more on the book “Forever Words.” Listen to the full conversation with John Carter Cash below:

Listen to our full conversation here.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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