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 411mania » Music » Columns

Give Life Back To Music 11.18.13: Johnny Cash - The Rubin Years: American V: A Hundred Highways
Posted by Sean Comer on 11.18.2013

(SEAN'S NOTE: I was once cautioned not to apologize for, excuse or even point out writing that I know might be lacking something. Allow me this one exception.

I hope you all don't mind that I kept this one somewhat brief and perhaps lacking my usual personal insight or reflections. I underwent a trying financial mishap this week that drained me of a lot of zip that would otherwise pepper my fastball.

Still, I love this column and didn't want it to fall by the wayside. If I'd done that, I'd have been left feeling like I'd let the crooks that victimized me - the ones in suits and the one that the Mesa Police are soon to be after - get just one more over on me. Anybody who knows me knows that I'm a sore loser about shit like that.

Besides, reliving this album was cathartic in an "Open wide and swallow the perspective!" way.

As always, thanks for reading.)

 photo WOMANDANCING_zps19fc2dff.gif

    Johnny Cash – American V: A Hundred Highways

By 2006, Johnny Cash had died three years prior.

Death didn't really "take" Cash from this world. In the kind of moment of passing that seems rare anymore, it gently laid its hand upon his shoulder – did it from right before him, not behind. It told him softly, "You've done all there was to do here. You've done even more, actually. If you're ready, the ones who went before you are waiting. June says ‘Hi.'"

For all its cruelties and all its failings, Cash found the hope beating within a sometimes hopeless world. Even three years after his death, what producer Rick Rubin claimed to be a total of "around 50" unreleased songs awaited that each expressed with every note and breath in between them just how much good Cash saw within it.

The producer-songwriter duo's universally acclaimed American IV: The Man Comes Around had been Cash's acceptance that the last mile of his trail had come. It was a tender, heartfelt, sometimes darkly honest meditation. If anything, 2006's American V: A Hundred Highways wrote Cash a last grateful letter to the world he'd traveled and loved: "Please, don't grieve. Be as grateful for the time we spent with another as I was in my last moments."

  • Johnny Cash

  • American V: A Hundred Highways

  • RELEASED: July 4, 2006

  • American Recordings/Lost Highway Records

  • All things considered, I could look to this album and call it "underwhelming" just because it didn't captivate me quite as powerfully as American IV.

    I could write that – if I were writing this as a critic and not a fan.

    Critics do it all the time, and it always bothers me: if an album undersells or doesn't quite achieve the beloved, iconic status of the release that came before it, then tags of "Failure" and "Letdown" inevitably follow from critics' mouths. The more valid truth is, we can all feel justified explaining that we perhaps felt drawn-in by and fell in love with something or other in particular about any artist's album, and then disappointed when that standout element goes AWOL with subsequent releases.

    It becomes cringe-worthy when pundits slap artists with "disappointment" tags just because an album that's every ounce as good as the one that came before somehow doesn't elicit equal buzz.

    American IV went platinum. American V went gold. The fact remains that it's arguably every measure as poignant. Rubin posthumously included two of the last original songs Cash had written before his death, "I Came To Believe" (written before the album's sessions) and "Like the 309". With verses like this from the latter, it's evident that Cash would exit this life the way he'd lived it: no apologies, even fewer fears.

    "It should be a while before I see Doctor Death
    So it would sure be nice if I could get my breath
    Well, I'm not the cryin' nor the whinin' kind
    ‘Til I hear the whistle of the 309"

    The song to follow that bold promise is a bluesy, twang-laden stomp. Earthy and blunt, it bears away some of the last of Cash's rebellious sneer. Even Death won't make the Man in Black flinch. Oppositely, "I Came To Believe" almost shares a kindred spirit with "Hurt". Like Trent Reznor when writing the frank, brutal admissions that Cash's withering voice in 2003 had leant whole new dimensions of sorrow survived, this is Cash's accounting for the years of wrongs, even the ones long since forgiven. What's more, though, it's his praises and thanks for the God that redeemed them.

    We could say that it's the remembrance of the moments when his life truly began and he became the Johnny Cash that inspired generations with his truth. Call it, if you will, a dying wish of his to see others lost and wandering around him made newly whole as he had been.

    Even before those songs, Cash's remake of the Larry Gatlin-written/Kris Kristofferson –recorded "Help Me" solemnly pleads, "Oh, Lord, help me to walk another mile, just one more mile/I'm tired of walking all alone." Take a moment to absorb the apropos feeling of Cash wanting to end things well before he returned to his late wife and many other loved ones. These are the first words of the album. Rubin deserves his appreciation for finding a way to comprehend and honor the worn-but-steady state of Cash's spirit as his body died. All the same, Rubin knew that Cash wouldn't want to end it all on a whimper.

    Hence, "God's Gonna Cut You Down". It's a slow, steady March with head held high that the Man in Black takes with God by his side, and taken with a dose of perspective on Cash's rougher years, a warning from experience: He can humble anybody at any time. It's a traditional spiritual song written in 1956 and first recorded by Elvis Presley in '67, but once more, Cash sings everything with such truth and conviction that he makes every song into one anybody could believe is sung of his own footsteps.

    Also, that same conviction solidly establishes Cash as quite possibly the most scary-tough 71-year-old anybody would ever see.

    Cash and Rubin render Gordon Lightfoot's "If You Could Read My Mind" in a touchingly spare fashion, even for the universally stripped-down motif of every American Recordings session that the two shared. It's nothing less than Cash breathing a whole new soul into Lightfoot's words by backing them only with a plaintively picked guitar and punctuating, understated piano chords that give the lyrics ample space to billow and be appreciated on their own. A track later, Cash is back to bluesy, spiritual colors with a take on "Further On (Up the Road)" from Bruce Springsteen's The Rising. It's one of the few times Cash really can't overshadow a song's original birthplace; after all, Springsteen wrote that particular 2002 album as a bleeding of America's fears and frustrations following the Sept. 11 attacks that tore this country asunder for us to rebuild over a passing decade. Nevertheless, it's an incredibly powerful take that's like a misty dock-worker's shanty in the twilight when sung in Cash's last voice.

    The album finishes with "I'm Free From The Chain Gang Now", a re-recording of a Cash original performed first on 1962's The Sound of Johnny Cash. The lyrics might've been written 44 years prior, but between 2006's understated organ and Cash's smooth, steady picking, it really was like the quiet sigh of his last light leaving him. The Man in Black had been paroled from a hard earthly sentence that ends for us all eventually.

    We should all be so lucky to go out so beautifully. Out of the 50 songs left unreleased at the time of Cash's death, Rubin declared in the Unearthed boxed set liner notes that he would only release these last two additional albums. Unfortunately, no one ever lives to describe those final moments of life in their closest details. This album might just be as close as it gets.

    Still …. There was one more to go. Next week, it's the 2010 conclusion to the last official studio recordings of an American conscience.

    Never dull your colors for someone else's canvas.


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