By PHIL SWEETLAND
NASHVILLE – JackWesley Routh has the extremely rare type of talent that led Johnny Cash to sign him the very first time Cash heard him.
And now, more than 30 years later, the world will at last get to hear first-hand the music of the writer whose songs have long been recorded by superstars including Cash, Waylon Jennings, and Linda Ronstadt. Best of all, fans and Radio will also be able to hear Jack's recording of "When The Trains Come Back," a lost treasure that he and Johnny Cash wrote in the 1970s, but which had never even been demoed until Routh rediscovered the song and recorded it on his new album Another Season.
The album was recorded in Los Angeles and co-produced by Jack and his longtime co-writer, Randy Sharp, who has likewise written hit Country and Pop songs for decades.
To hear "When The Trains Come Back" is truly to travel back through musical time. Jack played guitar on many of Cash's albums and won numerous "Superpicker" Awards for that work, and Routh's bluesy guitar lick which opens this song would have fit just as well on Johnny's classic 1960 Columbia album of railroad tunes, Ride This Train. Cash loved train songs – as did countless Country stars who grew up idolizing "The Singing Brakeman," Jimmie Rodgers. As Jack shows us here, "When The Trains Come Back," which was written during a period when Jack was married to June Carter Cash's daughter Carlene Carter, is indeed a Cash classic. Yet it is also very much a signature Jack Wesley Routh song.
"When The Trains Come Back," a story of love lost and found again in the Old West, begins at a station nearWichita. Jack's own life also started in Kansas, in the small town of Kingman. "It was a Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer type of life," Jack said recently in a conversation from his studio in Los Angeles.
Kingman, located about 50 miles west of Wichita, is a small farming communities located near towns with classic Midwestern names like Pretty Prairie and Medicine Lodge.
The young Jack worked on area farms and ranches, and got his first guitar at age 13. His Dad played what farm folks call the French harp – harmonica - in local Country bands. Jack joined his first band at 14, and made his first record in the mid-1960s with the group Robin's Hoods in Amarillo, Texas. He was soon a working musician, touring the Midwest and West, playing covers of everything from the Carter Family to the Rolling Stones.
"It was a blast, and we were making really good money playing two or three nights a week," he says.
By 1973, though, that vagabond life had lost much of its glamour. Jack was living in Colorado, spending much of his time reading and daydreaming about his musical heroes, Johnny Cash and Chet Atkins. So he resolved that he would travel to Nashville and try to meet 'em.
And indeed he did, though not without difficulty.
Soon after he arrived in Music City, Jack visited Cash's office and studio in suburban Hendersonville. John's sister Joanne was Cash's receptionist. She first suggested that Jack see John at a revival service which Hank Snow's preacher son Jimmy was conducting, but Cash never showed.
Undeterred and by now nearly broke, a day or two later Jack went to Cash's home and saw him working in his yard with a Rototiller, naturally all dressed in black. Jack introduced himself, and told Cash he'd love to play a few original songs for him. At first John suggested that Jack leave a tape with his sister at the office, and promised that eventually Cash would listen to the tunes.
"What I'd really like to do is play 'em for you myself," Jack stammered.
"What I'm doing," Cash answered, "is real important to me."
"What I'm doing is the most important thing in my life," Jack replied.
Cash nodded, looked at Jack, and said: "Gimme 30 minutes to clean up, and I'll meet ya at the office."
When they strode in to the office together, Joanne Cash "dropped her jaw," Jack remembers with a grin.
He continues: "We walked upstairs to John's office and I played him a bunch of songs. He signed me to an exclusive songwriter's contract that day, and gave me my first check."
To put it mildly, that was quite a moment. "It just happened, it was really amazing," Jack says quietly. "It was like a place in time when all the doors were opened and the opportunity presented itself. From there, it really blossomed into a friendship between John and me, and a lot of amazing things happened."
For a time, Jack was literally close as kin, first marrying Carlene, the daughter of June Carter Cash and Carl Smith, and later marrying Cindy Cash, John's own daughter. The marriage to Cindy lasted less than a year.
Soon Jack was not only writing for Johnny, but playing guitar with him on the road and on recordings for him as well. On tour, Cash would often bring Jack onstage and have him perform several songs while John was taking a break. Routh also did guest spots on a few of Cash's TV specials.
In time, Jack also met his other idol, Atkins. Chet signed Jack to RCA and cut several singles on him, but Routh felt that Chet was making him sound slicker than he really was. They broke off their recording contract.
During his Nashville years, Jack became very close to a pair of legendary Music Row studio icons, Cash engineer Charlie Bragg and the famed producer Cowboy Jack Clement. Cowboy Jack and Routh co-produced Cash's 2-album Gospel set A Believer Sings The Truth (1980) and both played guitar on John's Silver(1979). That was a combined 30 tracks or more, which Routh said took nearly a full year in the studio to complete. Routh and Bragg co-produced Cash's 1977 album The Rambler. During the sessions for that one, Johnny and Jack Wesley drove around the country, recording their conversations as they went. Much of that dialogue made it on to the album.
"Hanging with folks like Cowboy Jack, Waylon, and Johnny Cash was a great university," Routh said. "Cowboy was a great man, and a great mentor. I learned so much from him."
Meanwhile, Cash and Routh (whose last name is in fact pronounced RUTH) remained not only close friends but also co-writers. During one visit to Cash's second home in Jamaica, the two noticed that the stars in the Caribbean skies looked like diamonds. That night they wrote "Field Of Diamonds," which Cash went on to record in 2000 and Jack has included on Another Season as well.
They created "When The Trains Come Back" back in Nashville. "I remember the song well, we each took turns playing a bit of it while the other wrote down the lyric," Jack says. "I don't think another soul has ever heard this song. We had talked about doing something with it, but the time moved forward and it was never recorded."
Their lives moved forward as well. By 1980, Carlene and Jack had had a son and divorced. "I said, man, I gotta get out of Dodge," Jack said. That was when he headed west, and when John wrote Jack a letter "saying in essence that
A few months ago Jack discovered that letter, along with an 1864 Colt revolver Johnny had presented him for his 28th birthday, inside an old wooden box in his garage in Los Angeles. That same box contained the long-lost lyrics to "When The Trains Come Back."
Jack continued writing and recording superb music in Los Angeles, where one day at a session for Warner Brothers artist Karen Brooks, he met fellow singer and songwriter Randy Sharp.
As with Cash, Routh found a musical kinship with Sharp that would last decades. They co-wrote seven of the 12 titles on Another Season, which Randy also co-produced and mastered. Randy Sharp is the father of Maia Sharp, a terrific California singer and songwriter, and the brother of Steven Sharp, the CEO of the red-hot Sharp Objects full-service music company on Music Row. Steven has promoted over 60 No. 1 singles to Country Radio in a remarkable career.
Among the many earlier Randy Sharp/Jack Routh collaborations is "The Connection." That remarkable song earned Emmylou Harris the Grammy for Best Female Country Vocal in 2005.
"Jack is the real thing," Randy Sharp said from Los Angeles. "He works on a song until it's as good as he hoped it would be. Sometimes that takes days, sometimes years. I know the praise and the occasional checks are appreciated, but with Jack it's about writing something that he'll still be proud of in 10 years."
So after decades of writing songs for others, Jack decided to let fans and Country Radio hear his songs done by their creator. "I haven't had much of a recording career as an artist," he says, "but I had been thinking of doing this project for quite awhile. When Randy and I demoed this record, it seemed to have a little magic going with it."
One of the first to hear the early recordings was Randy's wife Sharon, always a tough critic. Right away she told them they were onto something.
"In the studio, these songs kind of grabbed both Randy and me, and I could tell this was really special," Routh says. "I decided to keep it really basic on the arrangements and the recording. Scott Morrison designed the guitar pickup and the microphones. We just had a real unique sound, real present."
For Jack Wesley Routh, this album truly represents Another Season, a new beginning in a career that's already been superb. For Johnny Cash fans worldwide, "When The Trains Come Back" represents something brand new and something fondly remembered at the same time.
Updated April 16, 2009