Tuesday, July 11, 2006

American V: A Hundred Highways

Johnny Cash died in 2003, less than a year after releasing "American IV: The Man Comes around." That album was powerful, the sound of a man looking death square in the eye. It sounded like the final words from a booming voice. I'd heard rumors there was another album but with Johnny's health failing, there was no way it could be as good as "The Man Comes Around".

It's better. Where "The Man Comes Around" was Cash fighting with his last ounce of strength, "A Hundred Highways" is a man at peace. He faced death and come to terms with it. This is a spiritual record, much like "My Mother's Hymn Book" in the "Unearthed" box set. People forget that underneath the tough, brash, impulsive exterior of Cash was a soulful, religious man (it's something the movie forgot, too). This album showcases that side and provides something I never expected; closure.

Thank Rick Rubin. It was his idea fifteen years ago to record an acoustic album for Johnny. That idea has become five albums, a box set and a live special with Willie Nelson. But it wasn't just inspiration. It's also Rubin's choices and guidance that makes these albums resonate. Cash was a songwriter but he wasn't afraid to do covers, whether they were from U2 or the civil war. The songs always go for emotion over genre. Besides, any song Johnny Cash sings is instantly a Johnny Cash song.

Rubin always knew how to use Johnny's voice. In the liner notes, Rick says that some days the voice was the old man in black, other days it was weaker and vulnerable. Rubin always had songs that fit. Compare the proclamation of "God Will Cut You Down" to the introspective "If You Could Read My Mind".

The American series caught my attention early on and if it's truly over (if there are truly no more rarities to release) it's one of the high points in my cd collection. If anyone wants to understand Johnny Cash, this is where I'll take them.

Read what other critics are saying about "A Hundred Highways".


VE said...

I couldn't agree more.

Dave said...

Johnny Cash was not only an incredible musician he was also a great artist. Lots of people get albums made, maybe tour for a couple of years, but few have the heart and stamina to make an entire life's work out of it. Cash was different, he wrote timeless classics, recorded one of the best live albums of all time and recorded current hits (like NIN’s hurt) which bridged his generation with ours. He also literally recorded music until the day he died. If there was ever a better closing to an incredible life, I can’t think of one. The man was truly a gift to music.