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One More for the Road

Johnny Cash fans will understand the tone of American V: A Hundred Highways, but the album's darkness might surprise newcomers to the Man in Black.

By SEAN DALY
Published July 4, 2006



While listening (and wincing and sighing and crying) to Johnny Cash's new American V: A Hundred Highways - recorded shortly before his death in September 2003 - I imagined a young music fan buying the album and hearing the legend for the very first time.

Most of us remember Cash as a sequoia of a man, a spiritual gunfighter shooting down his demons in front of God and everyone. But on American V - released, appropriately enough, on July 4, a time for gathering 'round monuments - the Man in Black groans, and sighs, and aches, his baritone reduced to the rumbling echo of distant thunder.

Not only was Cash nearly blind and using a wheelchair during the recording, but the album was also influenced by the death five months earlier of his wife, June Carter Cash. This was supposed to be therapy, a way to ease the pain. He needed this.

But do we? Well, that depends.

First-time listeners and casual fans will no doubt be unnerved by the gravity - dare I say creepiness? - of it all. On a few occasions, such as a strong-voiced cover of Bruce Springsteen's Further On (Up the Road), Cash sounds relatively defiant. But more often, as on a devastatingly broken version of Gordon Lightfoot's If You Could Read My Mind, he sounds beaten, frail, resigned. Is it strangely beautiful? Yes. Will I ever listen to it again? Not sure yet.

If I could, I'd steer a newbie to 1969's Johnny Cash at San Quentin, on which JC sounds like a cross between a tent revivalist and a superhero. Now that's the Man in (Bleepin') Black!

The 12-track American V, recorded in Cash's Tennessee cabin, is a time for goodbyes, not hellos. Fans and scholars would be wise to pay their final respects. As a stand-alone album, it's an uncomfortable haul at times, as Cash's voice is left unpolished, creaks and all. But as a memorial service, it's sublime.

Cash's voice is high and wavering in the mix, but a rootsy musical backdrop (recorded after his death) is provided by such disciples as guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench, both from Tom Petty's Heartbreakers. Producer Rick Rubin has helmed the entire American series, a collection of (mostly) cover albums that kick started Cash's late-career rebirth. But whereas he has always had Cash around for final approval, here the producer works alone, guessing at his friend's wishes. Not an easy task, but Rubin does a quietly fine job.

On the opening lament, a gut-check cover of Larry Gatlin's Help Me, Cash sings, "Lord help me walk another mile, just one more mile. I'm tired of walking alone," and Rubin uses a spare acoustic guitar and low, humming keyboards to guide him through. If the whole album was this dire, it'd be impossible to bear.

But Cash was a tough son of a gun, and Rubin wants you to remember that, too. Traditional gospel number God's Gonna Cut You Down is given a sturdy blues-rock backbone - greasy guitar lines, foot stomps, hand claps. Like such Cash classics as Folsom Prison Blues, the singer is once again staring down sinners with hell to pay: "Tell the rambler, the gambler, the back biter, tell them God's gonna cut them down."

The equally bluesy Like the 309 is the last song Cash wrote and recorded. The train-as-death metaphor has a dark humor to it, as Cash settles his life accounts when the locomotive comes to steal his last breath. A take on Rod McKuen's Love's Been Good to Me is also strangely uplifting, as Cash informs mourners that he's actually been a lucky man with a rich life.

For the most part, American V is an emotional wrecking ball. Imagine listening to 2003's Hurt, his popular cover of the Nine Inch Nails downer, over and over . . . in the dark . . . on a Sunday night.

The album's closing track, I'm Free From the Chain Gang Now, is a spare dirge featuring Cash trying to put a bold, brave face on his imminent death. And the Hank Williams classic On the Evening Train, about a husband sending off his wife's casket, will flat-out floor you, especially when Cash comes to the song's final verse, which sums up the entire American V experience: a dying man biding the minutes before he's back in the arms of his beloved.

I pray that God will give me courage

To carry on 'til we meet again

It's hard to know she's gone forever

They're carrying her home on the evening train.

Sean Daly can be reached at sdaly@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8467. His blog is at www.sptimes.com/blogs/popmusic.

[Last modified July 5, 2006, 10:54:39]


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