When Johnny Cash teamed up with producer Rick Rubin and American Recordings to release the first of his “American” series, he managed to both resurrect his career and earn genuine indie cred at the same time. The four records that followed 1994’s “American Recordings” have all pretty much kept to the same formula of sparse, stripped down arrangements that lay bare both the singer’s voice and the raw emotion of the songs.
He’s produced the best work of his entire catalog in the process. His last release, “American V: A Hundred Highways” is a beautiful final chapter to a truly original American artist’s long and influential life.
How good it is probably depends a lot on your view of the American series and how you regard Johnny Cash in the first place. If you’re in the camp that considers Cash that most rarified of artist, one that occupied a higher plane than mere mortal men – my camp, that is – and if you think that the highlights of the “American” series: “The Beast In Me,” “Delia’s Gone, “One,” “Hurt,” “Solitary Man,” etc. are stronger than his classic hits like “Ring Of Fire” or “Walk The Line,” then you’ll probably love “A Hundred Highways.” It’s the sound of a dying man publicly and honestly assessing his life and work and finding himself at peace with his own heart and his own legacy.
It’s striking juxtaposition of Johnny sounding clear and strong and Johnny sounding weak and frail underscores the honesty of the songs and the genuine humanity of the man singing them.
Not just anyone could pull this off, either. In lesser hands the plaintive, heartbreaking cover of Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind” would sound calculated and trite. The naked sentimentality of “Rose Of My Heart” would sound maudlin in the extreme. But that’s not the case here. He sounds bold and righteous on “God Is Gonna Cut You Down,” humble and sincere on “I Came To Believe,” and even kind of happy on the closer “I’m Free From The Chain Gang Now.”
You can’t escape the circumstances of the record. Recorded after the death of his wife, June Carter Cash, alone for the first time in his life, in poor health and staring his own death squarely in the face; even the liner notes by Rubin recount the man’s last days. Taken altogether, “A Hundred Highways” is almost too moving for words.
It’s definitely not a disc to pop in on a Saturday morning, nor is it likely to make any club DJ’s playlists. But now that the Man in Black is no doubt sitting at the very right hand of God in judgment of all of us lesser men here on earth, listening to and fully appreciating “American V – A Hundred Highways” should be at the top of any Johnny worshippers to-do list.
You gave us an awful lot in your time on earth, Johnny, and now this.
Rest in peace, bro.