I'm appreciative of the one reviewer so far who didn't give this an obligatory 5 stars, and suspicious of those that did. So why the full 5? Because, this is one of the most quietly, powerful albums I've heard all year & because it's so personal sounding.
To these ears, each American album had something to set it apart from the others & if I were to characterize this (hopefully) latest installment, I'd say A Hundred Highways is the most lonesome sounding of the lot. The sound of a man alone. Stripped of youth, health & any illusions.
All of the records in this series could be considered sparse in terms of production & accompaniment. Producer Rick Rubin acts more like a still photographer trying to capture the moment, rather than pull any strings. Which is one reason why they've all been good. He just let Cash be Cash. And in terms of all their previous work together I have to say, Highways is the most low key. It's also one of the most initimate. No Fiona Apples moaning in the background. No flashy covers like "Rusty Cage" or "Hurt". No frills at all. Just that voice & maybe a little acoustic guitar & organ. As he's so often proved, Rubin has good taste & this album is a far cry from some sort of open casket funeral.
"Help Me" starts things off & the fragility in Cash's voice cannot be denied. For some this isn't easy to take. The song is a plea & the end result is more heartbroken than desperate. "God's Gonna Cut You down" is easily the most rousing number on the album & Cash's voice comes across like thunder that is soon to die down in the distance.
As many have pointed out "309" is the last song he wrote. As any fan knows, The Man In Black was fond of train songs & it serves as a fitting epitaph, completely void of any self pity. It's a song about acceptance rather than resistance. One listen to the Hank Williams cover, "Evening Train" & its not hard to tell what inspired it. Perhaps Cash tossed in his own version just to point that out.
Where Americans III & IV feature covers from the likes of Nine Inch Nails & Depeche Mode, any attempt to reach a new fan base is laid to rest in choices like "Read My Mind" & "Four Strong Winds". Gordon Lightfoot's classic is typical AM fare while "Winds" is mostly familiar to fans of Neil Young. For my money, Cash steals them both for his own, bringing a gravitas that lends each a new meaning. And though I'm not a particularly a Springsteen fan, he's always seemed tailor made for Cash. Further Up The Road ranks up there with his classic take on Highway Patrolman. As for things like, "Rose Of My Heart", the conviction of Cash's delivery puts to rest any fears of Hallmark sentimentality.
As the song self-depricatingly suggests, Cash was indeed a "legend in his time "& this album is best thought of as a quiet, meditive coda to a career that began with the immortal line," I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die". True, the ravages of illness are apparent & some people just won't be able to get beyond that. But if you're able to, you'll be rewarded.
on July 6, 2006
It's a bit hard to talk about this album. If you want to hear a tired old man singing, then, by all means, buy this album and you may only listen to it once.
If you want to hear from a man who was in love and had a truly broken heart, then listen to Johnny sing to June. I'd dare say that you'd not get past "On The Evening Train" without being moved.
The heart of the man was broken in more than one way. Listen to him sing to and about the Lord. While you're listening, remember Johnny's life and all that went with it. Then, project the thoughts of some of these songs onto yourself and be glad that you have the foresight of his life. Some of the lines in these songs speak in a powerful way that they would not speak, if anyone other than Mr. Cash sang them. I looked at myself, when the clapping and stomping finally ended in "God's Gonna Cut You Down." I could see myself, to some degree, in many of the characters that he sang about in that song. It was not a pretty sight. But, I take this as help from both the man and the Spirit that led him.
I've been trying for a very long time now to try to seperate body, soul and spirit into definable parts. This album helped me to do this in a way that I've never been able to do before. Mr. Cash was old and tired. His body was feeble. If you've read anything at all about the album and how it came to be, and then listen to it, you'll have no doubt that he was tired. I believe that his soul had been ravaged (by his own actions) and then redeemed again (through June's love) and finally broken by June's death. You cannot escape these thoughts on this album. The Spirit that I hope led him through these songs, especially the spirituals, is the motivating entity that sparked both his soul and his body to go through the rigors (not only physical) to accomplish the songs on this album. He must have been so very tired at the end of some of these.
I've read a lot about his breath and the strength of his voice being noticable in varying degrees in these songs. It is true. And it adds all that much more character to the album. I was under no illusions when I bought this CD. I was not expecting anything in regards to great and wonderful vocals. What I was after, though, was the heart of the man. I think that this CD delivers Mr. Cash's final days and feelings right into our own bosoms. Do not listen to this album when you are easily distracted. Don't. Listen to it when you have the time to dwell on his words. Listen to it when you have time to dwell on his voice. Listen to it when you have the time to listen to what might be spoken to your own soul at the time.
Most albums I've ever bought, I've bought simply to listen to and to try to enjoy on an elementary level and perhaps escape the things of life, for a bit. Don't get this album if you are wanting an escape from life. It will hit you square in the face, from a man who has lived his life and run his race.
As you listen to the last track on this album You can almost hear Mr. Cash saying that all is done. When you hear the last note being played, reflect for just a moment on what you've just heard. If you're like me, you'll have sit and listened to the whole album straight through and at the end, you'll be sad, but still have a smile on your face.
Yes Mr. Cash, you are free from the chain gang now. Give June a kiss for all of us.
"Listening to "A Hundred Highways" and to earlier versions in the "American Series", it seems like these discs encapsulate the effects of time not just on Cash but on all of us. If age and sickness could wear down a voice of such power, a voice that sounded, in its prime, like it was a thousand years old, what does it hold in store for the rest of us? And you can't help but think that Cash's decline mirrors the decline so many of us have seen around us in our own families, strong men and women cut low with astonishing speed." Andrew Gilstrap
All of us understand that Johnny Cash was singing to keep himself alive. It has been told that the only time he felt alive after his wife, June Carter Cash's death, was when he was recording. The songs were Johnny Cash's reflection of his mortality, and that of all of us. Songs from many of the well known song writers appear on this CD, as well as his last written song "309". They seem so fitting and a message is within all of them. This CD is a memorial from Cash to all of us, and we are recipients of a CD that is frail and strong at the same time.
"Help Me"- by Larry Gatalin sets the tone for the weary man who is facing his journeys end. "I'm tired of walking all alone, Never thought I needed help before. Now, I know I just can't help it anymore."
"God's Gonna Cut You Down"- a strong rendition" You can run on for a long time, but sooner or later he's gonna cut you down".
"Like the 309"- afterlife, prayer, death, his last song "It should be a while before I see Dr Death. I am not a whiner or cryin kind until I hear the whistle of the 309- puttin me and my box on the 309".
"If you Could Read My Mind"- Gordon Lightfoot's song sung in a weary, resigned tone. "You know that Ghost Is Me", yes we do.
"Further On Up The Road"- Bruce Springsteen's tune "I'll meet farther on up on the road- Got on my dead man's suit and a song to sing. Where the road is dark, one sunny morning and we'll rise I know and we will meet further on up the road"
"On The Evening Train"- Hank William's song-"When I saw them place that long white casket in the back of the Evening train, the baby's eyes are red from crying".
"I Came To Believe"- one of Johnny's original songs- "I finally surrender it all. I cried out for help. I felt a warm comfort there." a fitting song.
"Love's Been Good To Me"-Rod McKuen's song- "Still and all I am happy, once in awhile along the way, love's been good to me." A tribute to his June Carter Cash.
"A Legend In My Time"-"If love has brought fame, but they don't give awards for hearts that are broken and love that is in vain" He speaks these verses and it is so poignant.
"Rose Of My Heart"-"We're the best partners this world has ever seen". Of course, a tribute to his June.
"Four Strong Winds"-"Well our rood times are all gone and I'm bound for moving on. I'll look for you if I am ever back this way" A good-bye.
"I'm Free From the Chain Gang" - "I got rid of the shackles that bound me"- a last good-bye.
"In a context "A Hundred Highways" stands as a fitting, gentle coda, a farewell from a major talent. A farewell, no matter what other re-issues and repackaging the future holds." Andrew Gilstrap
This is a good-bye from a King of Music, he knew it and we know it. A fitting tribute. One of His best.
Highly recommended. prisrob 09-03-06
on July 16, 2006
CD Review: Johnny Cash - American V - A Hundred Highways
When I was kid growing up in the sixties and seventies I was never much into Johnny Cash. Like most thirteen year olds at the time, my musical taste ran more towards the noisemakers of the day like Led Zeppelin and Grand Funk Railroad, with maybe a side dish of Beatles and Dylan as a reminder of the value of good songwriting.
So like most of my friends, I mentally filed Johnny Cash and his "Boy Named Sue" nonsense somewhere in between the country crap my Dad listened to (guys like Glen Campbell), and novelty artists like Tiny Tim or Ray Stevens. Years later of course, as both my tastes began to change and I grew up a little, I developed a healthy respect for The Man In Black as the American Icon he is.
You had to stand back in just a little awe at the man's voice for starters. There is nothing that quite matches it's deep resonance in all of music. The other thing about Cash though is simply his songs. Not all of them are written by him of course, but even when the writer is someone else, Cash makes every song he sings uniquely his own. His songs evoke images of America--the good, the bad, and the ugly--in a way only a very select handful of singers can. Johnny Cash's powers as an interpeter of song are without equal.
I briefly worked at American Recordings in Los Angeles in the early nineties, and was fortunate enough to have been in on the early marketing plans for the first of what was to become The American Series. And over the course of my travels through the years, I've had occasion to meet hundreds of rock stars. I thought I was way past ever being starstruck meeting musicians.
But when Rick Rubin marched into my office one morning in 1993 and introduced me to Johnny Cash, I was speechless. What are you supposed to say when The Man In Black himself extends you his hand and says in that unmistakable voice, "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash." I was absolutely dumbstruck at the experience. It's a story I tell often over beers with my friends to this day.
In the twilight years of Cash's life, Rick Rubin assured that his legacy would be properly bookended by making the great series of American Recordings albums. In doing so, Cash was able to end his career on the same sort of artistic high note that he began it with those early Sun Records albums. For that all of America owes Rubin a debt of gratitude (and I say that about the guy who signed off on firing me from his company).
Cash's famously resonant voice has grown a little weaker as his life grew closer to a conclusion. But it's no less powerful here on what will presumably the final chapter in the American series, A Hundred Highways.
In going through and rediscovering the boxed set and five albums proper that comprise the American Recordings series, it has been Cash's interpetive powers which have most struck me as a listener.
On those albums, Cash has reinvented songs by everyone from Soundgarden to Bob Marley (Cash's take on Marley's "Redemption Song" is a revelation) to Neil Diamond. With each interpetation, Cash uniquely stamps them as his own.
But as that famously resonant voice has in recent years began to recede, most notably on his amazing version of Nine Inch Nails "Hurt," it has also taken on new life. Where there was once a apocalyptic preacher's quality to it, there is now an inescapable weariness. A sense of both longing and of an almost biblical sort of take on mortality.
A Hundred Highways is filled with all these types of themes. The weariness, the sense of desolation and longing, and especially the consciousness of the artist himself's own mortality. Cash's take on Gordon Lightfoot's "If You Could Read My Mind" (a song I never particularly cared for until now) is sung as almost a wistful prayer and as a reflection on what had to be an extraordinary life. There's some regret there, but there is also both resolve and resignation.
The same goes for the opening track, "Help Me".
In DJ Radiohead's review of this CD, he makes the point that Cash's voice has never sounded more broken or heartbroken than it does here. I wholly concur. But I would add that on this song, as with so many others here, that Johnny Cash, fully aware of his own mortality, and impending meeting with his maker seems to be making peace with that in an almost prayer-like way. His voice creaks with resigned emotion here. It is the resigned voice of a man whose deep Christian faith framed him as a human being every bit as much so as did the wild, often hard life he lived as a younger man.
Cash is not just aware of his mortality on these songs. He is also clearly looking to the hereafter.
Cash likewise turns Bruce Springsteen's rocking road song, "Further On Up The Road" from The Rising into another of this album's numerous lamentations on life and death. The musical arrangement of this song, with it's quietly strummed minor chords and occasional Dylanesque organ sweep, in particular compliments the sentiment here. An otherwise fairly minor track from the great Springsteen, here it becomes a statement that is both eerie and poetic at the same time. It's both tearjerker sad and remarkably beautiful. As with all these songs, Cash's interpetation opens up entirely new meaning than you may have heard in the version by the original artist.
On the other side of reflection of course comes redemption. In "God's Gonna Cut You Down," Cash delivers a fire and brimstone sermon on accountability which implores the listener on the wages of sin "that as sure as God made black and white, what's done in the dark will be brought to the light." He goes on to tell "the rambler, the gambler, and the back biter that sooner or later God's gonna cut you down."
If in the Christian faith Cash believed so deeply in, it's true there is sure redemption for the righteous following judgment (as the good book says), I suspect Johnny Cash and his beloved June are enjoying quite a reunion right about now.
This is without a doubt one of the saddest records I've ever listened to. If you cry at certain movies, you may need a hanky or two to listen to A Hundred Highways.
It is also remarkably poignant and beautiful, and a fitting final chapter to one of the greatest stories in music history.
As of this writing, it's the record to beat for Best Album of 2006.
on July 4, 2006
I was slightly skeptical about how this album would turn out, ever since I learned of the plans to release it. I was worried it would be rushed, and full of doctored tracks that Johnny never finished. Turns out, Rick Rubin spent his time putting this album together. The production is once again sparse, but perfect, and the sequencing of the tracks is excellent. I really enjoy the guitar arrangements on this album, they seem to have just the right notes. Most of all, Johnny's voice, THE voice, strikes me more on this album than on the last American record. Some songs show him tired and weak, such as "like the 309", but even within these songs, Johnny finds the strength, and conveys emotion as powerful as ever. One of my favorite tracks on this record is "God's Gonna Cut You Down", a traditional composition. Johnny's voice sounds years younger, and he plows right through the song. At 1:09 in the song, Johnny sings a line " He called my name, and my heart stood still/when he said John, go do my will! " Johnny sings it with such a presence, it gave me a chill. Gordon Lightfoot's "If You Could Read My Mind" and Hank Williams' "On the Evening Train" are two more great renditions. Once again, as on other American records, Johnny makes the cover tunes into his own songs, as if they were written by or for him. I am completely content with this album, despite having initial misgivings a few months ago. I look forward to the release of any remaining recordings with more confidence after hearing this record. I recommend this record for those familiar with the American Recordings, or those who are big Cash fans. I don't think it's the best introduction to Johnny, I always recommend Live at Folsom Prison or Live at San Quentin as a good starting point for new fans. I must also say that the recently released "Personal Files" double disc set is excellent. It's all just Johnny and a guitar. the first song on the first disc, "The Letter Edged in Black" is brilliant. Much Respect to Johnny Cash, if there was a Mt. Rushmore for American musicians, Johnny should be the first one carved into it. May he rest in peace.
on July 21, 2006
Umm... To lay down and listen to this album for the first time, without distraction, kids in bed... Part of what has made Johnny Cash's relationship with Rick Rubin so amazing is the transformation of other artist's work, popular or obscure. I have every piece of this collaboration so I knew what to expect. Depth, emotion and that voice. I have said for years that if Johnny Cash read the phone book on record, I would buy it. His is the voice of sorrow, suffering, life and redemption. I thought the Unearthed collection pulled this all together so well. And now there is American V.
This is not an album of music. It is a study of an incredible life lived of mistakes made, of remorse and triumph. Johnny's voice is so out front in the mix, frail, quivering, yet reaching for once last gasp of proof. Johnny Cash had to sing, no matter the circumstances. There is a feeling of private inclusion that is almost creepy, yet incredibly moving (trite, but words cannot describe it).
Through all of the American recordings, I felt a sense of closeness that grew with each release, through deft song selection and Johnny's take on each song. This album brought me to the end of his life. Right there, almost too close.
This is not a CD for a summer cruise with the top down, or for cranking while out on the deck having a beer and grilling up supper. In fact, I have not figured out where this will fit into my life, yet more so than any album, book or movie I can remember, this CD WILL fit in some place as a document and companion for some unforeseen occurance. Dedicate the time and space for your first listening, and be prepared to be shaken up a bit when it is over.
on November 18, 2006
I know this is going to sound a bit dramatic but Johnny Cash's performance on this album is so good that many of the song almost brought me to tears. It was a bit embarrassing, because the first time I listened to the album I was at work sitting in my little cubical almost tearing up and one of my co-workers approached my to ask a question. I had to pull myself together quickly to answer their question so as not to look like a total boob. While most of these songs are covers Cash's renditions seem to infuse them with new feelings or feelings that they lacked in their original incarnations.
on July 4, 2006
This is a truly great album. In 100 years time there will still not be anyone that expresses humankind's shortcomings, regrets, sadness and happiness the same way as the late great Johnny Cash did in song. The voice is fighting to breath at times in songs like "if you could read my mind" but never once loses any of the power and emotion that we have come to love from the great man. Thank you Johnny and Rick Rubin for bringing out such powerful and brilliant music, anyone who appreciates music that comes from the soul should buy this album.
on July 12, 2006
My mom died recently and I cried through virtually this entire album (in my car--sobbing, probably should have pulled over). The first song I played over and over. Also the song about the train taking off with the mom while the baby was crying so much his eyes were red...Sorry I can't remember the titles. The part where he sings he heard her call his name. How poignant. More crying.
All I can say is that Johnny Cash was a huge part of the music in my parents'house as I was growing up (in the 60s and 70s) and not discovered again until "Walk the Line" reminded me of my time as a child listening to the radio while driving across country with my parents and brother.
I will definitely play this CD at my mom's memorial at sea. I love this CD--it was gut wrenching and soul inspiring at the same time. I am so glad I bought it.
on July 6, 2006
The mixing may have never gone underway prior to Cash's death, but Rick Rubin had a deep respect for Johnny and still does. This album treats his material with dignity and respect. When I read a new album was coming out a few months ago, I was wary. I thought "American IV" was a perfect way to end Cash's career, and I also thought "Hurt" was the perfect farewell song. But "If You Could Read My Mind" may have taken that spot. It's heartfelt and moving, but not as pessimistic as "Hurt." It reveals the heart of a man who is alone and a tortured soul, but he is finally experiencing peace.
I'm not sure if this is quite as good overall as "American IV" in terms of music and general dynamics, but if you aren't truly moved by this album, you probably need a kick-start to your heart.