Monday, September 04, 2006

the last highway

johnny cash - 'american v - a hundred highways'

released: july 4, 2006
running time: 42'53"
american recordings

songs: 1. help me 2. god's gonna cut you down 3. like the 309 4. if you could read my mind 5. further on up the road 6. on the evening train 7. i came to believe 8. love's been good to me 9. a legend in my time 10. rose of my heart 11. four strong winds 12. i'm free from the chain gang now

For all the musically questionable projects which he has been involved with, for at least one thing Rick Rubin must be given an enormous amount of credit for, and that is the revitalization of Johnny Cash. Rubin picked up a rather forgotten and time-misplaced Cash and helped him forge what are arguably the best albums of his career. For someone with Johnny Cash's historical musical past, this re-invention, this diving deep into americana and traditional music, speckled with some impeccably chosen rock covers that exposed cash to an entirely new audience and made him almost universal, is a monumental task worthy of only the greatest musicians ever. 'A Hundred Highways' is the final chapter in this 5-album (plus one boxset) saga, and it arrives posthumously after the sad passing of the great man in black.

First of all, dispel any of the habitual cashing in notions usually associated with posthumous records. Particularly after the passing of his wife, June Carter, this music was all Cash lived for, and he started recording 'A Hundred Highways' the very day after finishing 'American IV - The Man Comes Around'. His special friendship with Rubin is also more than evident to avoid any stupid remark about this release. True, Cash did not live long enough to oversee the final production of the record, but it's not like there was much to add or strip away anyway.

'A Hundred Highways' is the less flashy album of Johnny Cash's career. It's not like the american recordings albums have been huge fireworks and circus displays anyway, but there's no Soundgarden or Nine Inch Nails cover, no Fiona Apple or Bonnie 'Prince' Billy guesting, no frills. The covers are mostly traditional and/or spiritual songs, as well as a Gordon Lightfoot and a Bruce Springsteen number. The overall tone is of confession and rest, of a man trying to come to peace with his life, his close mortality, his losses and mistakes. Cash's failing health is very clear here - you can hear his breath going out on him on several occasions. However, and unlike what could be expected, this does not inspire a weak image. On the contrary. Take 'God's Gonna Cut You Down', where he alternates between a failing voice and sometimes goes back to his booming of old - the effect is deeply impressive, as Cash seems to incarnate that very same wrathful god he sings about.

Despite the general final-sounding feel of this record, easy also to interpret from most of the songs (the last song he ever wrote, 'Like The 309', talks about loading his coffin on the train - my box on the 309, a similar theme to the Hank Williams cover 'On The Evening Train', where it's the wife's coffin), some of the songs are genuinely moving and hopeful, as if Johnny is giving us a final wink, like the aforementioned Gordon Lightfoot song, 'If You Could Read My Mind', Springsteen's 'Further On (Up The Road)', with the line one sunny morning we'll rise, i know, and i'll meet you further on up the road, 'Love's Been Good To Me' as a clear allusion to June, or the closing 'I'm Free From The Chain Gang Now', where Johnny echoes for one final time the words like a bird in a tree i got my liberty.

I hope he did.

the good: an elegiac, confessional and very human ending to one of the most important musicians of the 20th century
the bad: the occasional quavering and overall voice/guitar minimalism will not appeal to everyone, even johnny's fans


  1. Great review. I will have to check this one out.

    Rubin has amassed quite a body of work over the years. He seems to pick projects based on personal tastes rather than $$$.

  2. Great review of not just an album, but of the man himself. What Cash did with NIN' "Hurt" is incredible, far superior to the original by NIN themselves.

  3. fred - thanks! and yeah, i have to admit i like rubin for that fact. you can see there's passion in what he does, not just going after the money. i just wish his personal tastes were a bit better sometimes. :)

    dpth - i do agree. i assumed you've watched the video as well? i find it deeply moving.

  4. I went out to iTunes and checked out some of the new Cash releases and was surprised at how much I liked them. I purchased American IV and will probably pick up this one soon. Great stuff!

  5. fred - i've got a sneaking suspicion that you'll have all the american recordings cash records pretty soon. :)

  6. very good blog. Invejo a 'pachorra' e força de vontade...

  7. obrigado, sadsadkitty. :)

    quando se trata de coisas que gostamos, a pachorra aparece naturalmente.

    já vi que gostas de monty python, vou manter o teu blog debaixo de olho. :)

  8. Oh, very nice. I'm glad you reviewed this--Cash was remarkable. The "Hurt" video is beautiful and so moving, isn't it?

  9. it is, because it looks so true...