American V: A Hundred Highways
The Music Box's #6 album of 2006
First Appeared in The Music Box, July 2006, Volume 13, #7
Written by John Metzger
Tue July 4, 2006, 12:00 AM CDT
Motherhood. Apple Pie. Baseball. Independence Day. American Recordings. Johnny Cash. American V: A Hundred Highways. From any other artist, the invocation of such a patriotic string of ideas would sound like a pretentious marketing campaign. For Johnny Cash, whose iconic status has grown even greater since his passing in September 2003, these terms merely present a statement of fact. The recording of his latest effort American V: A Hundred Highways began on the day that its predecessor American IV: The Man Comes Around was released, and although it would have been easy to rush the collection to market immediately after his death, its power and potency almost certainly would have been tempered by the hoopla that surrounded the biopic Walk the Line, the box sets (The Legend and The Complete Sun Sessions 1955-1958), and the countless other repackaged retrospectives that quickly flooded store shelves around the globe. In a rare moment of restraint from an industry that increasingly thrives on instant gratification, the set wisely was held back until it could be judged on its own merit.
Granted, there is some truth to the notion that the American Recordings series has, at times, been delivered awkwardly. On the one hand, the stripped-down ambience that has clung to most of the material has suited Cash far better than the studio polish that unfortunately has marred many of his works. By contrast, Cash didn’t connect completely with some of the oddball song selections that mastermind and producer Rick Rubin threw his way. That’s what makes American V: A Hundred Highways so unique. Touching upon the familiar themes of life, death, love, and God, the collection initially might seem, at least on paper, to be cut from the same cloth as just about every other album that Cash has released. One listen to its contents, however, and the raw, emotional intimacy of his performance becomes readily apparent.
Like its predecessors, American V: A Hundred Highways is composed almost entirely of cover songs, but this time, the material is so well-chosen that all the sorrow and anguish that permeated American IV: The Man Comes Around’s covers of Nine Inch Nails’ Hurt, Hank Williams’ I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry, and the standard We’ll Meet Again is magnified a thousand-fold. "Lord, help me walk another mile, just one more mile," Cash sings with genuine weariness on American V: A Hundred Highways’ opening track, a sparse rendition of Larry Gatlin’s Help Me, and the fright within his voice suitably sets the tone for the remainder of the affair.
At times, it’s almost painful to listen as Cash publicly grieves the passing of his wife June Carter and struggles with his own deteriorating health. Hank Williams’ On the Evening Train is as appropriate as any of the selections featured on American V: A Hundred Highways, and from the palpable ache in Cash’s voice, it’s clear that the song’s sentiments convey his most intimate thoughts. Elsewhere, on Like the 309, Cash’s final composition, he imagines his own demise to be akin to a train ride, while If You Could Read My Mind — Gordon Lightfoot’s distressed depiction of a shattered relationship — is painstakingly transformed into a haunted, mournful lament that is as much about Cash’s coming to terms with the emotions surrounding the death of his spouse as it is a message to his children from beyond the grave. For a man who once carried himself with the tough, rugged defiance of an outlaw, he now sounds fragile and frail, his spirit nearly broken by life’s misfortunes.
Still, not all of the material on American V: A Hundred Highways is nearly as depressing, and during the set’s latter half, Cash’s suffocating veil of sorrow begins to lift. On a reworking of I Came to Believe, he revels in his spirituality, and on songs like Hugh Moffatt’s Rose of My Heart and Rod McKuen’s Love’s Been Good to Me, he reflects fondly upon the relationships that he has had over the course of his life. Make no mistake, these are pivotal moments on the effort, ones which help to alter the mood of its narrative arc and drive it toward its inevitable conclusion. Unfortunately, they also have less of an emotional impact, even if they do serve to illuminate the darkness that sometimes seems nearly inescapable. It’s only within the comforting liberation that he details on the outing’s concluding tracks (Ian Tyson’s Four Strong Winds and Jimmie Rodgers’ I’m Free from the Chain Gang Now) that the resonance fully returns. Nevertheless, any lingering skepticism regarding the posthumous issuance of American V: A Hundred Highways ought to be put on hold at least until the unveiling of the promised sixth installment in the series, which Rick Rubin insists there is enough material to assemble. Simply put: American V: A Hundred Highways is a gem of an album that easily ranks among Cash’s most cathartic works.
49th Annual Grammy Award Winner:
Producer of the Year, Non-Classical
50th Annual Grammy Award Winner:
Best Short Form Music Video
Of Further Interest...
American V: A Hundred Highways is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2006 The Music Box