Touching end for an
Johnny Cash - American V: A Hundred Highways
Review by Tony BonyataJohnny Cash's recent posthumous release American V: A Hundred Highways is by far the most bittersweet of his five Rick Rubin produced American records. Had this collection been released prior to Cash's own death these songs, where The Man In Black laments about mortality, God, death and the loss of his beloved wife June, wouldn't have sounded so much like he was delivering his own eulogy.
While Cash's vocal tracks were recorded just months before he died in September of 2003, the musical arrangements weren't added until two years later. And although the singer may not have been present for the treatments, I'm sure he knew that when these songs would eventually see the light of day after his own lights dimmed that they be in good hands.
And those good hands are primarily those of producer Rick Rubin, who in 1994 signed Cash to his American Recordings label (which, at the time, was better known for rap and hard rock). At a time when both Nashville and the major labels turned their back on the legend, Rubin helped turn Cash's career around with the first of his American Recordings - a collection of harrowing, rough-hewn acoustic numbers that turned Cash's own compositions, along with Kris Kristofferson, Nick Lowe, Leonard Cohen and even heavy metal artist Glen Danzig's, into deep and often disturbing folk songs. Rubin has also enlisted the help of guitarist Mike Campbell, keyboardist Benmont Tench (both from Tom Petty's Heartbreakers) and guitarist Smokey Hormel, all who lent their talents to earlier Cash American recordings.
From Cash's heartfelt version Larry Gatlin's "Help Me" to the dusty folk-blues of Bruce Springsteen's "Further On (Up The Road)" and the gentle beauty that graces Hank Williams' "The Evening Train," Rubin has added tasteful treatments that wonderfully enhances the lead of Cash's simple yet meaningful vocal deliveries throughout. Even on the most recognizable number, Gordon Lightfoot's 1971 hit "If You Could Read My Mind," Cash laments about being bound in shackles and ghosts in wishing-wells as if this was penned from his own personal journeys.
While the entire album is a gem, two songs that stand out are the traditional retelling of "God's Gonna Cut You Down," which lines-up a prison-work-camp rhythm with Hormel's spooky slide guitar, and "Like The 309," which turned out to be the last original song that Cash ever wrote. This spirited folk-blues number conveys the train and railroad themes of his youth and cloaks them with double entendres that deal with his imminent mortality.
Eulogies are never pleasant, but, rather an often healing necessity. This eulogy for one of the most important figures in American music, however, proves to be both.
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