(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
Four years after Johnny Cash’s seeming last studio album American IV comes the new American V: A Hundred Highways, set for release Tuesday (July 4). Though he never sounder weaker in voice, in many ways the new work is, to me, the most emotionally effective and affecting thing he has ever done.
Though weak in voice and almost completely blind by then, his spirit was never stronger, and that spirit shines through strongly on these intense performances. They are not musically pretty but they will grab and hold your attention through sheer will.
The more fragile Cash became physically, it seemed the more he gained acute insights into the music he wanted to round out his life and career. This CD reflects a man who had come to terms with his own mortality and who could unflinchingly look eternity in the eye. In many ways, the entire album is confessional. On the opening song, Larry Gatlin’s “Help Me,” the lines “I never thought I needed help before/Thought that I could get by myself” cut through to your very soul. Cash continues, “But now I know I just can’t take it anymore/And with a humble heart on bended knee/I’m begging you please for help.”
He converts Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind” — which I had heretofore regarded as a relatively carefree song — into a dark night of the soul of a dying man. Similarly, Don Gibson’s “A Legend in My Time” becomes a wryly brooding, almost bleak look back at Cash’s own life and legend. In the same way, Ian Tyson’s “Four Strong Winds” becomes a bittersweet farewell message.
He again says farewell to his late wife, June Carter Cash, with “Rose of My Heart” and with the mournful words of Hank Williams “On the Evening Train,” singing, “I pray that God will give me courage/To carry on till we meet again/It’s hard to know she’s gone forever.”
The last song Cash ever wrote, “Like the 309” (which returns to the train-sound rhythm of Cash’s first single “Hey Porter”), and the other Cash original, “I Came to Believe,” seem songs of resignation from a man at last at peace with himself and with the world.
Interestingly, I’m seeing a few backlashes in online chats and Web sites of people who are dismissing this and the whole of the American Records series as being sort of too far away from Johnny’s past and the glories of his Sun Records years and his Folsom Prison era. Well, I can understand staunch traditionalists, but still … let the man breathe a little.
Then there are those attacking the American Recordings series for being too modern and for Cash covering rock songs by the likes of Trent Reznor and Nick Cave. Well, I say screw ’em. A great song is a great song, no matter who wrote it, and Cash obviously was a champion of that theory. His song catalog in recent years is pretty much impervious to attack, as far as I’m concerned.
There are people who say they are unconvinced by Cash’s obviously world-weary attitude toward the end of his life and seem a bit offended by his faltering vocals on these last recordings. Well, I say, of course he sounded weak. He was dying. This is the voice of authenticity. He still felt he had something to say. And he obviously did, and the work is powerfully effective. The songs are made much stronger, I think, by Cash’s determined efforts to make them work. He put his heart and soul into these recordings.
And there are those questioning the underpinnings of this album and the matter of determining what Cash would want for instrumentation and accompaniment. Cash recorded these songs — and about three dozen more — as only vocal tracks, with his guitar, in the months before his death. So it was up to producer Rick Rubin to do the arrangements and add the musical backing. With primary musical backing coming from Heartbreakers Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench and from slide guitarist Smokey Hormel, who had all worked with Cash before, it was a smooth and natural and logical glide, it seems to these ears. The music is all of a piece.
Finally, you know, certain recent developments with a certain female music trio inevitably bring back memories of when Cash was totally exiled from the country music industry for being too old. His record label dropped him, country radio quit playing him, and he became a non-person on Music Row for many years. What was his reaction? First, he withdrew to the road and his fans there. And he never, as far as I recall, complained publicly at the treatment he received from Nashville and the country music industry.
Then, after the redemption of his first American Recordings work, came the violent, kick-out-the-footlights-Cash blowout of old, with his full-page Billboard ad depicting him literally giving the finger to Music Row and to country radio. After that, he shut his mouth, did no interviews about it and settled down to doing what he did best — and that was writing and recording great music. He reinvigorated and reinvented himself, made some great new albums and won Grammys and found a whole new audience. I guess others could learn from his example. If they choose to.