Some three years after Johnny Cash’s death we have the release of the fifth in the American series. Yet again produced by Rick Rubin, the CD differs from the others in the series in that it was not created to add to the Johnny Cash legend or indeed his incredible body of work. Instead we have a CD of songs that have been released after a de-facto worldwide acceptance that Johnny Cash was a musician and songwriter of incredible talent, and a Hollywood film which has widened his appeal to the masses.
The vocal tracks had been recorded prior to Cash’s death and after the passing away of his wife, June Carter. Only after his death did Rick Rubin apply the musical backing to the tracks. This was provided by some of the Heartbreakers who had previously worked with Cash and Rubin in the American series. The cover songs collected in this fifth CD seem less ostentatious than previous editions of the series. Gone are the outrageous ‘Hurt’, ‘One’, ‘Personal Jesus’ type covers to be replaced by more sedate choices. Gordon Lightfoot’s song, ‘If you Could read my Mind’ is the perfect example. ‘Further On Up the Road’ by Bruce Springsteen is another. As with previous song covers, Johnny Cash undoubtedly adds to the songs in his own way but it all seems a bit more understated than in the previous CDs.
A highpoint of the record is, of course, the final Johnny Cash penned tune, ‘Like the 309′. Returning to the popular country and blues theme of the railroads, it appears that Cash was waiting for the last train. The fact that he passed away so soon after writing this song means it almost automatically becomes about his own mortality. Herein lies the problem of listening to posthumous Johnny Cash – all his songs appear to relate to death whether they are supposed to or not! This is especially true of most of the American series, it is almost as if Rick Rubin was producing with this in mind. However, my listening and interpreting skills aside, it seems as if the shadow of Johnny Cash’s life looms large over this record.
Where the album does excel itself is with ‘Gonna Cut You Down’. Here Johnny Cash is singing in a strong voice – preaching and sermonising while the musicians behind him create a stomping, repetitive beat. It sounds as if Cash has come back from Heaven and is seeking to punish those on behalf of God who have committed crimes. It works a treat and exploits that looming shadow to the maximum of its possibilities:
“Go tell that long tongued liar
Go tell that midnight rider
Tell the Rambler, the Gambler, the Back rider
Tell them that God’s gonna cut you down.”
Other reviewers on the internet have all gushingly given this album 5 stars (or whatever their stupid rating system is) and at the same time have been able to add their two cents to the Johnny Cash myth. In my opinion, American V: A Hundred Highways is the weakest record of the American series. The song choices do not always work best and his voice at times is frail, weak and breaking. The record has none of the humour and spark some of the other American series titles have. Of course my comments should be taken with a pinch of salt, after all it is all relative. Of course this is better than Justin Timberlake or Orson, just not as good as his legend now demands.
While having Cash’s last penned song is indeed interesting, ‘Like the 309′ will only ever be remembered for this fact. The song in itself is a throwaway ditty that Cash would have found difficulty in justifying its inclusion of American IV: The Man Comes Around, for example. This nicely leads me to my concluding point. The media have been unable to separate celebrating Johnny Cash’s life with the release of this CD and as such have heaped false praise on it. Rick Rubin has hinted that there may be more material which could be released in this fashion in the future. American V: A Hundred Highways proves that this should be the end of mining the depths of Cash’s American recording sessions. The subsequent material will likely be even weaker than what is on display here and any further exploitation of Cash’s back-catalogue will only result in a diminished legacy of one of America’s greatest ever songwriters.