Johnny Cash

American V: A Hundred Highways

(Universal; 2006)

By Dom Sinacola | 10 July 2006

It’s been said, Cash has said and so forth, that his life was a literal everyday struggle. Between God and the devil, between the mongrel in his blood — perhaps that of his addictive lineage, his alcoholic father and later his own battle with amphetamines and spirits — and the faith in his hymns, the outcome isn’t revelatory. Cash has been the Man in Black for a while now, has imbued all the contrition, style, rebellion, and iconography that comes with the stark silhouette of a stooped and defiant outlaw; ambivalence is a strong current for an artist, any artist, and so forth. But maybe this battling is a way to picture Johnny Cash as Legend, with Father at Mother, with Brother at Son, with Nashville values at country life, and especially with commercial success against artistic pressure.

When Cash’s commercial viability waned in the ‘80s, he had already proven himself as a connoisseur of Other tendencies: during the tenure of his ABC television show, he introduced Nashville and a national, even international, audience to acts like Ray Charles, Louis Armstrong, and Bob Dylan. With his performances to prisoners, Native American reservations/historical locations, and to a latent consciousness of fettered patriotism, he created a massive populist clout that seemed both at odds with and respectful of a traditionalist mindset. These are big words. They’re even bigger touchstones of influence for rockabilly, rock and roll, folk, modern gospel, soul, and for all the urban or suburban permutations of country. But when Cash’s sales, even with Mercury, failed to garner the superstardom he experienced after the record breaking time in Folsom Prison and San Quentin, he lost a good chunk of creative solidity and, even, relevance. It’s said one thing led to another, that his public Christianity scared the public and oversaturation took hold, and that his recording output and his sobriety faltered simultaneously, or there abouts, and that Betty Ford held his hand, as did his family, and that he continued recording unabated, even though he was an icon and only that, fading at that. Enter Rick Rubin in 1993, catapulting Cash back into the immediate generational eye by simply allowing the Man full artistic warrant and reintroducing Cash’s hands in the contemporary musical landscape. Nothing new, really, just Cash was over sixty years old by then. This album, American V, is of course the last available piece in Rubin’s and Cash’s series.

Considering its four predecessors, A Hundred Highways most closely resembles the first of the American Recordings, as pared down a modern slice as you’re bound to find in Cash’s discography. While maintaining a dulled and reverent background instrumentation, V is bare, but not necessarily minimal, all efforts tending towards the embellishment of Cash’s baritone. If the series follows any thematic logic, the album that really had Cash at his popular stride, The Man Comes Around, the one with “Hurt,” was about Endtimes and Redemption, and now, this much quieter and intimate entry is about Death. An obvious choice, one that makes Rick Rubin look exactly like the guy behind Frances the Mute. Right, but it’s also unfair to reduce Cash to an old husk with a staggering voice. He’s defined himself in righteous originality, maintaining a lucid vision of his art and his prominence that, while sometimes stubborn or irascible or unhealthy, made art into myth. And the funny part is that while he followed his whorled conscience, he harnessed an image of biblical duality that allowed him to be accessible and powerful and that, the kids must’ve realized, Rubin could never eclipse.

So, if American V seems like it’s about Cash at his Death, and like this is too commercial and predictable an album to truly be under Cash’s guidance, it’s because Johnny Cash is that good. Or bad. With Death he’s always coupled the bitterness of Life, grief, loneliness, and the recounting of sin; his wife’s death is bitter shadow enough. How easy (and sad) to make Death about Life! And, frankly, why shouldn’t we believe Johnny Cash to recognize an impending end? Just as we believed the guy killed a man in Reno to watch him die, that he could even think it up at all and we could hear some of the necessary gumption to do so in his voice, and that was scary but also intriguing, we trust in this Man at Death’s Door. If American V tells Cash’s last story, it’s about a guy unable to move on. A real solid end and nothing to choose but acceptance.

Which is not to say that Rubin didn’t have his work cut out for him. Johnny Cash recorded these tracks right before his death in 2003, and three years later, the release of such as both a conclusion to a fundamental series and as, fundamentally, an icon’s last album, requires a degree of devotion and camouflage that ya can’t laugh off. Rubin’s more than a producer with Cash. He’s an “embellisher,” for whatever that merits, and his background sound corresponds similarly. As with “God’s Gonna Cut You Down,” a standard to which Cash’s voice adds a sinister lick, Rubin’s presence is forced, but ebullient and kinda neat. The stomps, handclaps, and the creaking acoustic bass notes jump from the tracklist like a vomited warning. As with Springsteen cover, “Further On Up the Road,” Rubin daintily circles Cash with flute and piano, gutting the Rising cover. The approach is different from the bolstered take on the Boss’s “Highway Patrolman,” but the versions are no less Cash’s own. This idea’s a staple for the American series, the icon epitomizing the concept of a covers record, taking the skeletons of his subjects as distinctly Cash-ly as possible, but now we’re given a consolidation of the adapted personas. He’s brimstone preacher and scarred vagabond, lover and corpse, and all these are laid out plain to witness, like Johnny Cash is desperately confronting his career in his last days, which is a concept that works. Simple enough.

Undoubtedly, the first half of V is stronger than it’s second. “Help Me,” swollen with stringed bathos, breathes like prayer, and Gordon Lightfoot’s chintzy “If You Could Read My Mind,” is given incomprehensible lyrical validity. “And I will never be set free, as long as there’s a ghost that you can see,” aches just as you think it could. The organ behind his vocals cringes, and electric power chords stay subdued, grumbling. And probably the cheeriest song on the album, Cash’s believably last composed piece, “Like the 309” reels with slide guitar and the cartoonish heartbeat picking that’s in every Old Favorite of his. His words are still literate and a bard’s dream, dripping with snark. That it’s a song about the train that will take his casket away is second to the clarity of his persistent poetic knack.

Cash’s run-thru of Hank Williams’ “On the Evening Train” begins to express the unimaginative side of Rubin’s work. Or perhaps Rubin’s production just begins to wear thin. The addition of strings is shallow, just as “Rose of My Heart,” while fitting, sounds superfluous. Same with “Four Winds’ ” little waves of violins and Spanish tinkering. The draw is in Cash’s voice, sure, and “A Legend In My Own Time” harvests that lulling, visceral appeal, but “Love’s Been Good to Me” survives only in the scant melody Cash can still muster. Any climax without sounds cheating, and Cash’s voice is then most alienated from Rubin’s work, not only in the dichotomy between gnarl and studio sheen. That distance between production and vocal turns Cash into a symbolic shell, and curdles the honesty of the collaboration.

It’s a despicable cycle: we’re given the facets of Cash we want, and because of that, we trust the wisdom he presents. It could be a commercial trick, and a young critic leans toward cynical debasement. The ugly fact remains that Cash can’t argue, and this is all we’re pretty much left. Is Rubin the stalwart remaining, and should he be blamed? For what? For pimping reverence two years post; for substituting sacredness for a degree of bland accompaniment; it doesn’t matter. He’s done an admirable job.

The joy and tragic excitement of the record is in just hearing the Man in Black, aware of the genre magnanimity and ambiguity of his career, for the last time. It’s a pleasant collection, comfortably consolidated and comfortably nice, despite the lack of anything earth-shattering. And it’s nice to take obvious things away from his End, like his voice and his solemn, dooming sensibility and the impressive artistic community he headed and fostered. The magnificent grandpa of Cool. A Hundred Highways is an obvious record, sure, but a successful one, an enjoyable artifact for those of us unengaged by whatever elitism makes tradition such a rueful, difficult thing of the past.