American V: A Hundred Highways

American V: A Hundred Highways

5.0 4
by Johnny Cash
     
 

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Drawn from Johnny Cash's final sessions with producer Rick Rubin, American V is another moving chapter in a great American artist's remarkable late-life journey. In the end, Cash's presence, even when he's clearly in a weakened state -- he died four months later -- remains commanding. The mood is reflective, the artist imparting his sense of an endgame playingSee more details below

Overview

Drawn from Johnny Cash's final sessions with producer Rick Rubin, American V is another moving chapter in a great American artist's remarkable late-life journey. In the end, Cash's presence, even when he's clearly in a weakened state -- he died four months later -- remains commanding. The mood is reflective, the artist imparting his sense of an endgame playing out and, poignantly, faced alone (these recordings were made in the months after the death of Cash's wife, June Carter Cash). One of the most beautiful moments on any Cash record comes via a lilting version of Gordon Lightfoot's "If You Could Read My Mind," a wobbly, ragged vocal caressing the haunting lyrics just so, at times sounding so weak you wonder if Cash will get through the number. An elegantly fingerpicked acoustic guitar line is bolstered by Benmont Tench's organ, humming reverently in the style of a hymn of invitation. Many of the songs reference death explicitly (the bluesy, bopping "Like the 309," the final recorded Cash original) or obliquely (Larry Gatlin's dirge-like "Help Me"), whereas others, such as Springsteen's low-key folk blues "Further On (Up the Road)," suggest a reunion in the afterlife. Grim as this all sounds, Cash lets the light in with two touching love ballads, Rod McKuen's reflective affirmation "Love's Been Good to Me" and Hugh Moffatt's unfettered billet-doux "Rose of My Heart." The sound remains spare, with Benmont Tench's piano, organ, and harpsichord flourishes offering gentle support to a sextet of guitarists (including Heartbreaker Mike Campbell, Randy Scruggs, and Smokey Hormel) who pick evocative, minimalist phrases in such a way that Cash often sounds like he's accompanied only by a music box. Other musicians are credited with unspecified "invaluable contributions," but surely Marty Stuart's adding the mandolin lines here and there, "Uncle" Josh Grave is behind the dobro cries, and Cash's old Sun compadre, "Uncle" Jack Clement, wasn't just along for the ride. Well-traveled highways, these, and the going was good.

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Editorial Reviews

All Music Guide - William Ruhlmann
American V: A Hundred Highways is the long-awaited album of Johnny Cash's final recordings, the basic tracks for which (i.e., Cash's vocals) were recorded in 2002-2003, with overdubs added by producer Rick Rubin after his death on September 12, 2003, at age 71. Between 1994 and 2002, Cash and Rubin had succeeded in fashioning a third act for the veteran country singer's career, following his acclaimed 1950s work for Sun Records and his popular recordings for Columbia in the 1960s and '70s. In the '80s, Cash's star had faded, but Rubin reinvented him as a hip country-folk-rock elder at 62 with American Recordings (1994), his first new studio album to reach the pop charts in 18 years. Unchained (1996) and American III: Solitary Man (2000) continued the comeback, at least as far as the critics were concerned, though none of the albums was actually a big seller. But American IV: The Man Comes Around (2002), propelled by Cash's cover of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt" and a powerful video, stayed in the pop charts longer than any Cash album since 1969's Johnny Cash at San Quentin. By 2002, however, Cash was in failing health, homebound and in a wheelchair, and he suffered a personal blow when his wife, June Carter Cash, died on May 15, 2003. The American series, which posited Cash as an aged sage and the repository for a bottomless American songbook, had already shown a predilection for gloom in the name of gravity; it's no surprise that the fifth and final volume would be even more concerned with, as three earlier Cash compilations had put it, God, Love, and Murder. The ailing septuagenarian certainly sounds like he's near the end of his life, but that said, he doesn't sound bad. Cash was never a great singer in a technical sense: he hadn't much range, his pitch often wobbled, and his lack of breath control sometimes found him grasping for sound at the end of lines. But he was a great singer in the sense of projecting a persona through his voice; his emotional range, which went from a Sinatra-like swagger to an almost embarrassingly intimate vulnerability, was as wide as the spread of notes he could hit confidently was narrow. Such a singer doesn't really lose that much with age; in fact, he gains even more interpretive depth. Listening to this album, one can't get around the knowledge that it is a posthumous collection made in Cash's last days, but even without that context, it would have much the same impact. The album begins with two religious songs, Larry Gatlin's "Help Me," a plea to God, and the traditional "God's Gonna Cut You Down," which, in a sense, answers that plea. The finality of death thus established, Cash launches into what is billed as the last song he ever wrote, "Like the 309," which is about a train taking his casket away. The same image is used later in the cover of Hank Williams' "On the Evening Train," in which a man and his child put the coffin of a wife and mother on another train. Cash sings these songs in a restrained manner, and even has a sense of humor in "Like the 309," in which he complains about his asthma: "It should be awhile/Before I see Doctor Death/So it would sure be nice/If I could get my breath." In between the two train songs come songs that may not have been about death when their authors wrote them, but sure sound like they are here. As written, Gordon Lightfoot's "If You Could Read My Mind" seems to concern a romantic breakup expressed in literary and cinematic terms, but in Cash's voice, lines like "You know that ghost is me" and "But stories always end" become inescapably elegiac. Bruce Springsteen's "Further On (Up the Road)" is even easier to interpret as a call to the hereafter, with lines like "Got on my dead man's suit and my smilin' skull ring/My lucky graveyard boots and song to sing." These two songs make a pair with the album's two closing songs. Ian Tyson's "Four Strong Winds" is, like the Lightfoot selection, a folk standard by a Canadian songwriter, also nominally about romantic dissolution, although here the singer who is "bound for moving on" doesn't seem likely to come back. And the closing song, "I'm Free from the Chain Gang Now," may have lyrics implying that the unjustly imprisoned narrator has been set free, but in Cash's voice it sounds like he's been executed instead and is singing from beyond the grave. The four songs in between "On the Evening Train" and "Four Strong Winds," dealing with faith and love (the former expressed in a previously recorded 1984 Cash copyright, "I Came to Believe"), are weaker than what surrounds them, but they serve to complete the picture. And it's worth noting that Cash at death's door still outsings croaking Rod McKuen on the songwriter's ever-cloying "Love's Been Good to Me." Cash may never have heard Rubin's overdubs, but they are restrained and tasteful, never doing anything more than to support the singer and the song. If the entire series of American recordings makes for a fitting finale to a great career, American V: A Hundred Highways is a more than respectable coda.
New York Times - Jon Pareles
The music isn't afraid to call for tears, but it does so through understatement. Cash's voice is always exposed, whether it's full-toned or faltering, and most of the tracks are folky and reverent, placing measured finger-picking above churchy chords.
Rolling Stone - Douglas Wolk
These stark, mostly acoustic arrangements don't try to conceal the singer's ruined instrument but find authority in its quavers and crags.
Entertainment Weekly - Gilbert Cruz
[Grade: A-] The man's spirituality -- so overlooked in last year's Walk the Line -- is everywhere.... If this is ''Johnny's final statement''...then it is a fitting one, completely representative of the faithful old man he had become.
Washington Post
An elegiac song cycle on which Cash comes across like a man who is very much at peace with the inevitability that's hovering over him..... The result is arresting. J. Freedom du Lac
Boston Globe - James Reed
Taken together, [the songs] are as poignant a farewell and tribute as you could imagine to a man (in black, of course) with such a storied past and imposing legacy.... "American V" is a gem: a respectful swan song that holds its creator in loving remembrance.
San Francisco Chronicle - Sylvie Simmons
The best is his neotraditional take on Bruce Springsteen's "Further On (Up the Road"). Beautifully understated -- just like the production and band on this fine album, and well worth the three-year wait.
The Independent - Andy Gill
It is easily the best of the five American albums, and one of the most compelling releases of Cash's career, a work of moving simplicity and emotional directness that underlines how rare those qualities have become in our cynical times.
Chicago Tribune - Greg Kot
The material is mostly first-rate, from the gospel-tinged traditional "God's Gonna Cut You Down" to Bruce Springsteen's "Further On (Up the Road)," and Cash's commitment to it is beyond question.
Denver Post - Ricardo Baca
Some of the country legend's finest material. Cash's favorite meditations are all here, including jail, God and death, oftentimes in that order.
Los Angeles Daily News
Cash's voice was not as a strong as it once was, but it still carried an authority that set him apart from other singers.... Rubin's production is stellar throughout, spare but with the right touch.
Hartford Courant - Eric R. Danton
Cash's weakened baritone still bristles with determination, even if it doesn't rumble quite the way it once did. Stark, stomping percussion and ominous acoustic guitar help "God's Gonna Cut You Down" thunder with the force of a revivalist preacher.... A worthy addition to an extraordinary catalog.

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Product Details

Release Date:
07/04/2006
Label:
Lost Highway
UPC:
0602498626962
catalogNumber:
000276902
Rank:
3870

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Tracks

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Album Credits

Performance Credits

Johnny Cash   Primary Artist
Marty Stuart   Musician
Mac Wiseman   Musician
Pat McLaughlin   Guitar
Benmont Tench   Organ,Piano,Harpsichord
Dennis Crouch   Musician
Larry Perkins   Musician
Randy Scruggs   Guitar
Pete Wade   Musician
Smokey Hormel   Guitar
Jonny Polonsky   Guitar
Laura Cash   Musician

Technical Credits

Johnny Cash   Composer
Don Gibson   Composer
Ian Tyson   Composer
Gordon Lightfoot   Composer
Bruce Springsteen   Composer
Rod McKuen   Composer
Larry Gatlin   Composer
Hugh Moffatt   Composer
Rick Rubin   Producer,Liner Notes
Christine Cano   Art Direction
John Carter Cash   Executive Producer
Traditional   Composer
Vlado Meller   Mastering
Lou Herscher   Composer

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