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Johnny Cash - America V: A Hundered Highways Print E-mail
Tuesday, 01 August 2006
format:    16-bit CD
performance:    10
sound:    9
release year:    2006
label:    Columbian/Legacy
reviewed by:    John Sutton-Smith

ImageThirty years ago on America’s bicentennial birthday of July 4th, 1976, I was lucky enough to be in Washington, D.C. to see the great Johnny Cash, all dressed in black, ‘natch, singing buoyantly beneath the Washington Monument for the gathered faithful. For a young immigrant to America and nascent Cash fan it was an unforgettable moment, about as good as it gets.

It is hard to imagine that three decades on, and three years after his death, the late great country star is still serenading America on its birthday. American V: A Hundred Highways, released this 4th of July, is the first selection of some 40 or 50 songs that Cash recorded in the final months before he died in September 2003, a haunting and beautiful farewell from one of America’s richest voices.

Recorded once again by longtime unlikely collaborator and producer Rick Rubin, A Hundred Highways is a selection of 12 songs taken from those sessions; the vocal tracks were recorded in the months just prior to his passing but the muted, respectful arrangements, courtesy of Heartbreakers Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench, slide guitarist Smokey Hormel (all three of whom appear on earlier Cash albums), along with guitarists Matt Sweeney and Johnny Polansky, weren't undertaken until two years later. Cash wasn’t around to hear the final versions of these songs.
The recording schedule was reportedly dictated by when Johnny was strong enough to sing, and was also overshadowed by the death of his wife June only months before, thus it is no surprise that this collection carries on its acutely familiar yet eerily fragile voice an openly self-conscious air of mortality. From the traditional “God's Gonna Cut You Down” to Hank Williams’ lament “On the Evening Train,” the album, to be frank, is imbued with death. The voice in every song seems to be saying goodbye.

A Hundred Highways comes amid a recent spate of posthumously-released compilations, including Personal Files, a fascinating journey into Johnny’s musical roots, culled from the family’s extensive personal archives, and the DVD release of Live in Denmark 1971, capturing a dynamic performance at a pivotal moment in his career, along with Carl Perkins and a rare later performance by the original Carter Family.

The comparisons of course are striking: the confidence and vibrancy in the voice is now gone, but the clarity of spirit and unvarnished truth still rings strong. Whereas on these remarkable documents, it might have taken over and commanded the space around it, the voice of Johnny Cash here is left stranded in the air, almost waiting for the listener to come catch it.

On the opening “Help Me,” Larry Gatlin's sweet song of surrender to a higher power, Cash's voice cracks and wavers, sometimes losing rhythm and melody, but never giving up. Literally choking back emotion, he sings "but now I know I just can't take it anymore/and with a humble heart on bended knee/I'm begging you please/for help." On "Like the 309,” significant as the last song he ever wrote, Cash bemoans being short of breath, and his voice becomes a metaphor that is at once all too real.

The album really gains traction when Cash, perhaps on one his weaker days physically, puts a truly soul-breaking plaint on Gordon Lightfoot’s rueful “If You Could Read My Mind.” As he has with other classic ballads like “Wichita Lineman” and “Redemption Song,” Johnny finds something deep in the heart of the song that only he can tap into; in his livelier rendition of Springsteen's “Further On (Up the Road),” he suggests a man who is at peace with himself: “One sunny morning we'll rise, I know/And I'll meet you further on up the road," he sings.

The artful song selection, from Don Gibson’s wry “A Legend in My Time” to Rod McKuen’s “Love’s Been Good to Me,” resonates with Johnny’s story on so many levels; Ian Tyson's "Four Strong Winds" might well have been written especially for him, while the secular hymn "I Came to Believe" and the final spiritual "I'm Free from the Chain Gang Now," are a definitive last will and testament from a man finally unbound.

It is not the easiest record you’ve ever listened to. The voice croaks, the last note fails at times. But the heart and soul of a thousand railroads humming ring strong and true to the very last breath.

With most of the instrumentation added posthumously around Johnny's vocals by Campbell, Tench and Hormel, experienced veterans of previous Cash American recordings, there is a conscious sense of respect and restraint here. The voice in all its ragged glory is clear and true and Rubin wisely uses his brushes sparingly to color the raw emotion that Cash left behind. The sound is elegant, even elegiac at times, even if a certain dynamic and spontaneity residing in earlier recordings, when Johnny was present, is missing. It is almost as if the musicians sense Johnny is listening and want him to be proud of them.

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