Johnny Cash – American V: A Hundred Highways

I’m sure anyone who has read through this blog for any amount of time totally knew I was going to write about this album eventually. I have written about Johnny Cash more times than I care to count at this point, and I’m kicking myself slightly that I didn’t even write about some of his albums that I had wanted to write about. I knew, however, in my heart, that near the end of this project would be a writeup of one of my favorite albums of all time, Cash’s farewell from beyond the grave, American V: A Hundred Highways:

There is a very touching moment in the Johnny Cash’s America biography that came out fairly recently, in which one of his daughters (Cindy, I think) recalled watching Cash’s video for “Hurt” from American IV: The Man Comes Around with her father, and in a very upbeat way that sounds like it suited him greatly, he asked her “Well, what did you think?” Cindy, of course, was apalled at the powerful imagery of the elderly Johnny Cash, her father, and the images of his mother, his past life, and all of that were almost too much. She responded negatively that “It sounds like you’re saying good bye!”, to which Cash simply replied, “Well… I am.”

Indeed, Johnny Cash, with his newest best friend Rick Rubin, put together an album fully intended to be the final chapter in Cash’s musical story, but then something tragic and unexpected happened. June Carter Cash, the woman who stood by Cash’s side through all the hard times and near-death experiences he had gone through up to that point, the person he cared about more than anyone, died during a heart operation in 2003. When death was near, June told Johnny to keep on working, and according to Rick Rubin, as soon as June was gone Johnny told Rick to keep him working every single day, because if he stopped working, he too would die.

Thus began what artists half a century younger than Cash would consider a “grueling” recording schedule. In around four months after June’s passing, Johnny Cash recorded somewhere near 50 songs. Though he was no longer able to play much guitar on the recordings (that mantle being taken up by 8 or more of the musicians he’d been working with), and his voice was barely above a whisper for some of them, he was able to commit those songs to tape, work on compiling the Unearthed box set I dedicated 4 entries to covering, and submitted his selections for his Life compilation. On top of all that, he even played a couple of shows at the Carter Family Fold, which was his final public appearance. Finally, just when I’m sure he was planning on recording at least 3 more albums that year, Johnny Cash finally clocked out for good and went home to his wife on September 12th, 2003 (which is a date you should make note of for a future entry).

With Cash gone and Unearthed finished and out of the way, it was up to Rick Rubin to piece together a final-final-we-mean-it-this-time album of Cash’s music from those 50 or so recordings. Though I have no idea which of the songs Cash recorded didn’t make the cut, I do know that the songs that were selected for this album are stunning. The album, much like the album before it, dealt with the major themes in Johnny Cash’s music: Love, God, and death (“Murder” being the correct phrase but he doesn’t murder anyone in this album).

One thing that is entirely lacking in American V is the presence of contemporary pop songs that Cash would transform into covers that people are usually pretty polarized about. There’s no “Hurt” or “Rusty Cage” or “Desperado” to be found on this album, in fact I confess that I had never heard any of these songs before hearing this album, so you could have told me Cash wrote every one of them, and I would have been disappointed to find otherwise. In fact, Cash wrote two of the songs on this album, one of which was a long time ago, the other of which was the most recent.

The album starts, as some things do, with a prayer. A gentle acoustic guitar introduces the Larry Gatlin song “Help Me”, which is about the most humble piece of Christian music I think I’ve ever heard:

Oh Lord, help me to walk another mile, just one more mile
I’m tired of walking all alone
And Lord, help me to smile another smile, just one more smile
Don’t think I can do things on my own

I never thought I needed help before
Thought that I could get by by myself
But now I know I just can’t take it anymore
And, with a humble heart, on bended knee, begging you please
For help

At that point, a deep, powerful cello swells underneath the song, only to drop out after the chorus as Cash whispers the next verses. I feel the cello is profound in this particular song because it lends that profound depth to the bare guitar that serves as the only other instrument, but it also helps to highlight the fraility and honesty of Cash’s singing in this song. In the hands of any other singer, the words up there would sound pretty standard and possibly insincere if given too much production. When Johnny Cash, knocking on Death’s door, sings those lines and audibly struggles to produce enough air to take on that long line that ends with the word “Please”, it comes out with so much earnest longing that it will bring a logger to tears if he’s not careful. A chilling start to the album, and one that definitely seperates it from the upbeat rockin’ of something like Unchained.

While the album is on the subject of God, now that the album has started things off with the redemption, it’s now time for some good old-fashioned evangalism. Cash plays preacher for a track called “God’s Gonna Cut You Down”, which started off as an eerily peppy Gospel number, but whether it was planned by Cash or entirely the idea of Rick Rubin, the song is now put into a pounding old-time blues stomp, in a minor key and led by the stomping of feet and clapping of hands to provide the beat. Cash’s vocals are suprisingly strong in this particular song, and whether you believe that God will cut you down for your wrongdoing or not, there’s no denying that Cash believes it. His conviction is unwavering, and that makes me very glad that he’s on my side.

It should be a while before I see Dr. Death
So it would sure be nice if I could get my breath
Well I’m not the crying nor the whining kind
Until I hear the whistle of the 309

One of the surprises in this album is “Like The 309″, which is another bluesy number, in a minor key, with a playful air and some unusual lyrics indeed. Of course, this is one of the songs that was written by Cash himself, and was in fact the last song he ever wrote. In the grand Cash tradition, it’s a train song, specifically, a ghost train, or whatever you want to call it. The song is actually pretty fun and intriguing, to be honest, I wish I could write a song this cool.

Next we have a song by Gordon Lightfoot, called “If You Could Read My Thoughts”, which is a tragic little song about lost love that features some brilliant songwriting by an artist about which I know next to nothing. Still, Johnny’s vocals are especially weak on this song, but that takes nothing from the performance, as it’s still a song you can absolutely picture Johnny Cash living.

One of the more recently written songs that Cash covers for this album is Bruce Springsteen’s “Further On Up The Road”, which is another tale of death, represented as Cash taking a journey with his lucky graveyard boots, smiling skull death ring, and other fancy metaphors. The song is, once again, in a minor key, but is undeniably a solid tune, and is actually a bit of a favorite in the set for me.

People who don’t like to weep bitterly through music should heed the following warning about the next song: it was written by Hank Williams and is especially sad for a Hank Williams song. Yeah, having heard over 100 of Williams’ songs, there isn’t one I can think of (not even “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”) that can hold a candle to the sadness of “On The Evening Train”. I have heard the song a hundred million times, and even as I listen to it right now, my eyes are getting misty. Especially given the recent loss of Cash’s, this song will floor you, and I don’t even want to tell you why. If you dare to listen to it, go right on ahead, I’ll be over here with box of Kleenex for you.

Putting death behind for a while and bringing God back into the picture (as if He even left), Cash presents his second original, “I Came To Believe”, which I believe was written was written at some point in the 80’s, I actually can’t remember at this point. Either way, the song reflects much of the same attitude of “Help Me”:

I couldn’t manage the problems I laid on myself
And it just made it worse when I laid them on somebody else
So I finally surrendered it all, brought down in despair
I cried out for help, and I felt a warm comforter there

And I came to believe in a power much higher than I
I came to believe that I needed help to get by
In child-like faith, I gave in and gave Him a try
And I came to believe in a power much higher than I

Curses, now I’m getting all misty-eyed again. This album is heavy stuff, man.

Nothing worked out when I handled it all on my own
And each time I failed, it made me feel twice as alone
And I cried “Lord, there must be a sure and easier way
For it just cannot be that a man should lose hope every day”

Jeeze! I can’t handle this, I am writing the rest of this thing with a bowl of ice cream.

Now that I have my ice cream, I am ready to talk about the next song, “Love’s Been Good To Me”. This song, like a pint of Cookies N’ Cream, serves as kind of a break from the bittersweet feel of the rest of the album with a sweet little diversion in the form of a reflective song about a life well-lived. It’s a happy little song, but the next song is miles better.

Yes, “A Legend In My Time”, a title that un-ironically suits Johnny Cash, yet the song, if you remember Roy Orbison singing it, is sung from a different perspective. Everything I said about this song as handled by Mr. Orbison applies here, only the arrangement is a little different, and Cash does a spoken-word version half way through that is pretty great too. I just love this song, heck I might cover it myself someday.

“Rose Of My Heart” is another sweet love song, only this one is also devastating to those brought down to a wimpy emotional constitution by the rest of this album, damn it all.

We then get another song that’s a bit of a favorite of mine, called “Four Strong Winds”. Written by someone I’ve never heard of and covered probably most famously by Neil Young, Cash’s version is excellent, even if it seems unlikely that Cash would be going to Canada for some quick work, but that just goes to show what I know because this is one of a long line of Cash songs that have to do with Canada. Either way, what I love about this song is that there is no presence of death, the song is about moving on with life after heartache and that is so necessary at this point in the album, because one has to have that idea of life continuing on for the album to proceed, elsewise it just becomes a dirge. There’s a life inherent in music, even when the topic is death, so this song kind of represents that to me, a look to the future whereas all the other songs simply deal with the past. In fact, “Four Strong Winds” is a powerful example of this, but the ultimate example makes up the final track of this album.

Johnny Cash had recorded the song “I’m Free From The Chain Gang Now” a little over 40 years previous on his aptly-named The Sound Of Johnny Cash, which was the same album of origin for the song “Delia’s Gone”, which serves as the other bookend to Cash’s entire American Recordings career. The fact that this album, and by proxy, the career of Johnny Cash, is ended with this particular song is a stroke of absolute genius. If you think about it, Johnny Cash has never served hard time in prison, but he sings song after song about being a prisoner, and he never murdered anybody, yet his songs all deal with that most horrid of sins. When one looks at the truth behind the fiction of song, “I’m Free From The Chain Gang Now” finally reveals, to whomever wishes to look, that Johnny Cash’s prison was his own mortal body, and the crimes against it that he committed had him serving a life of pain and darkness, even in the brightest light. The man who started nearly 10 years previous going to jail for murdering a “low down and triflin'” woman called Delia in his first American Recordings album is now free from the chain gang. Neither of these two songs meant much of anything when Cash boomed them out with all the youthful vitality of a lad of 30, but here in his final days, they have both, in their own way, represented for Cash the ultimate redemption in song.

And, with that, the book on Johnny Cash is closed. With the success of American IV and the attention brought to The Man In Black by his death nearly 3 years previous, American V went straight to number 1 upon its release, the first Johnny Cash album to do so since At San Quentin (which is, incidentally, the first album we covered on this blog). Of course, not to take things too seriously, the album also holds the record for being the poorest selling number 1 record ever, so apparently it was a slow week all around.

I’m not sure I can even recommend this album to anybody that doesn’t already love Johnny Cash. It is by far the most powerful album in his entire catalog as far as maintaining an emotional hold on whoever lets it, and though “Hurt” was a grand undertaking, it does not nearly affect me as much as the songs on American V, which I feel are closer to home for Cash than the more unusual stuff. Still, the great strength of Johnny Cash was never his booming voice, the instrumentation, the songs he sang or even the songs he wrote, but his ability to make you feel the songs, to make them his own, and to put all of his love into each one. To hear Johnny Cash’s music, at its best, even when Cash is not at his performing best, is to make a heart-to-heart connection with someone you’ve never met, but is so familiar you could swear he was there the whole time. It’s a bit like religion, I suppose, except you can dance to it.

Thanks again for reading all of these thoughts of mine on my favorite artist, even if I may have repeated things about him dozens of times, I guess I never get tired of talking about it.

4 Responses

  1. Know nothing of Gordon Lightfoot? It’s clear you’ve never been to Canada, he got quite big here, so as a result I’ve heard him very often. He’s probably the biggest Canadian folk singer type guy we have. It’s a pretty good song in his version too, though it was sung at the height of his powers, which makes it a bit less sad than Cash’s version which was clearly at the end of his life.

    It was also made into a disco dance song, though the less said about that the better.

    It’s strange you’re right at the end though. Now you need to do the last Warren Zevon.

  2. You are indeed correct that I have never been to Canada, but the artists I’ve been discovering in the past year or two from there have been really good so far, so thankfully it’s not all Nickelback and Shania Twain ha ha.

    The less said about disco dance songs in general, the better.

    Also yeah, only 2 more entries, and indeed one of them will be the last Warren Zevon album!

  3. To be fair, Nickelback is from Alberta, so technically they’re from a different province so we accept no responsibility. Saskatchewan has produced Joni Mitchell and was briefly the home of Feist – along with one or two bands only I’ve heard of (I dare say Deep Dark Woods is a superior beard-based band, take that how you will) – so our record is mostly clean.

    To get back on track, I will say you’ve got me more interested in Johnny Cash than I was before. I used to only have the American albums, though now I’ve filled my hard drive with a frankly ridiculous number of the older ones as well. Him and Zevon are the big ones you’ve made me interested in, so there’s a positive contribution to my musical landscape.

  4. [...] to some of you who may have read my entry on the “final” Johnny Cash album toward the end of the 2009 project, you may remember me saying something that “that closes [...]

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