Photography: Don Hunstein/Sony Music

New album showcases songs taken from the country music icon’s previously unknown writings.

Country music’s Man in Black is uniquely celebrated in Johnny Cash: Forever Words, an ambitious compilation of songs created from Cash’s heretofore unknown poetry, lyrics, and letters, and set to music by an outstanding array of contemporary artists. Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Brad Paisley, and Jamey Johnson are among the notables represented on the album, which Legacy Recordings, a division of Sony Music Entertainment, will release April 6 on CD, vinyl LP and digital formats.

When Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash passed away in 2003, they left behind what John Carter Cash, their son, has described as a “monstrous amassment” of material. Among the bounty: Johnny Cash’s handwritten letters, poems and documents penned over several decades. Over the past two years, John Carter Cash and Steve Berkowitz, serving as co-producers of Johnny Cash: Forever Words, invited a wide array of musicians to create new music to accompany these newly discovered Cash writings.

“Determining the artist for each song was truly a matter of the heart,” says John Carter Cash. “I picked the artists who are most connected with my father, who had a personal story that was connected with Dad. It became an exciting endeavor to go through these works, to put them together and present them to different people who could finish them in a way that I believed that Dad would have wanted.”

Recorded primarily at The Cash Cabin Studio in Hendersonville, Tennessee, Johnny Cash: Forever Words also is the musical companion to the best-selling Forever Words: The Unknown Poems, a volume of Cash’s unpublished writing edited by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon and curated by John Carter Cash and Berkowitz.

Many songs on the Legacy Recordings album were directly inspired by material in the book, while others are drawn from different sources of Cash’s unpublished writings.

The tone of the album is established with the opening track “Forever/I Still Miss Someone,” which features Kris Kristofferson reciting the last poem Cash ever wrote alongside guitar accompaniment from Willie Nelson. Continuing the close-to-home theme, the music then transitions to the deeply personal “To June This Morning,” a letter Johnny wrote to his wife, June Carter Cash, now interpreted by real-life couple Ruston Kelly and Kacey Musgraves.

Rosanne Cash, Johnny’s eldest daughter, and Carlene Carter, June Carter’s daughter from a previous marriage, also contribute to Johnny Cash: Forever Words, as do Jewel, John Mellencamp, Elvis Costello, Alison Krauss and Union Station, and The Jayhawks, among others.

John Carter Cash and Steve Berkowitz, along with some of their stellar collaborators, describe the creative process that led to Johnny Cash: Forever Words in this video.