Johnny Cash - American V: A Hundred Highways Review
by Zane Ewton
Johnny Cash delivered the most emotional musical statement of this decade with his cover of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt". The song and accompanying video thrust the ailing Cash back into the spotlight and sparked the events that would follow.
Notwithstanding the movie and the countless compilations and tributes, it looked as though "Hurt" would be Cash's final statement, even overshadowing Cash's own composition, the fantastic "The Man Comes Around."
Now that the tributes have been paid and the Oscars have been picked up, we are treated to what is officially billed as "the last of Johnny Cash's recordings." American V: A Hundred Highways does not have anything with the immediate power of "The Man Comes Around" or "Hurt", but it is a considerably better album.
Johnny sounds old. Of course you could argue he never sounded young. Despite his age, Cash's voice is strong. Nobody can carry the weight, or balance the humor and emotion that was ingrained in the simple tones this man made effortless.
A Hundred Highways was recorded after the 2003 passing of June Carter Cash. The impact of losing his companion, and his own mortality, is the driving force of this record. Producer Rick Rubin explained that Cash told him recording was his main reason for being alive.
Cash's favorite topics abound through A Hundred Highways, none more present than God. The album opens somberly with "Help Me". A plea of "Lord help me walk another mile just one more mile/I'm tired of walking all alone." The song is beautiful in its simplicity, awash in brutal honesty and depth. Cash always avoided the overly sweet trappings of so much gospel music. "Help Me" being the perfect example of Cash at his best.
The biting "God's Gonna Cut You Down" has a menacing beat that propels Cash's warning to his fellow sinners. The drama is alleviated by "Like the 309", until you realize he is singing about his coffin being transported by train. "309" was the last song Cash wrote. Set on a train, Cash displays the swagger of a man who once thought himself invincible. You can tell that young man still lives in there, regardless of if he is traveling in a wood box.
A cover of Gordon Lightfoot's "If You Could Read My Mind" is another dramatic step for Cash, displaying how he and Rubin choose ideal songs that would seemingly make no sense, but fit perfectly. Whereas Bruce Springsteen's "Further On (Up the Road)" seems like it had been written with Cash specifically in mind.
Hank Williams' "On the Evening Train" is just one more beautiful song on this record. The story of a man and his son watching their wife/mother boarding the evening train in a "long white casket". Cash reciting "I pray that God will give me courage/To carry on till we meet again" is so personal that he didn't need to share something like that.
Ultimately, that admission is what makes Johnny Cash more than a simple country artist. His blood is on these tracks. His life, his love and his God are open for all to see and feel. The confessions continue in "I Came to Believe", another Cash composition with the simple refrain, "I came to believe in a power much higher than I."
"Love's Been Good to Me" and "A Legend in My Time" add a little levity to Cash's sentimentality. "Rose of My Heart" is a love letter to his wife, tender and warm. The album ends with "I'm Free From the Chain Gang Now", another prison song. One in the long line of prison songs Cash has done that ends in hope rather than despair.
A Hundred Highways is simply too good to ignore. Cash's final statement included everything Cash is best known for and created the powerful image of the man in black. A legend in life and in death.
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Johnny Cash - American V: A Hundred Highways
Label:Lost Highway Records
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