There is not much point in trying to conjure up words not already written about Johnny Cash. To say Johnny Cash is unique is true but is inadequate because the word "unique," like so much of our language, has been robbed of its power by overuse and incorrect usage (I will save the language rant for another day). Unique. Icon. Mystique. Legend. If you were to describe Johnny Cash you might begin with those four words but you would not be the first to do so. All the good words to describe the man and his recorded legacy have been used.
And what a legacy! Damn near everything you care to say about the man and his records has been said. Not only that – he long ago reached that rare status where reviewing one of his albums is pointless. It would be like having some silly scribe reviewing the stone tablets Moses brought down from Mount Sinai. They are the Ten Commandments. What else is there to say? In that same way, this is Johnny Cash. He makes Johnny Cash records. No one made those records before and no one will make them again.
It is difficult to count the number of albums he released during his lifetime due to the number of knockoff compilations and other record company shenanigans inflicted upon his recorded works. He released his first album in 1957 for Sam Phillips' Sun Records. After that, it gets tricky. He had a 46-year recording career which does not take into account the cringe-inducing number of albums released since his death in September 2003. It does not require a lot of imagination to see the flood of posthumous releases and compilations as vultures picking at the bones.
Posthumous 'new' releases are often a disappointment on some level because artists rarely die with a completed album. That means someone else has to oversee the finishing of the album and it usually means the finished product is something less than what it could have been. It also calls motive into question. Is the estate or the label trying to make a quick buck on work an artist never intended to release or are they presenting work the artist wanted fans to hear?
It is a little less unseemly in this instance because the making of A Hundred Highways is not significantly different than the four previous installments of the American collaboration between Cash and producer Rick Rubin. The songs were built around Cash's voice and an acoustic guitar. Rubin often fine tuned the songs and recorded additional instrumental passages after Cash had given his finished vocal. Sometimes, after he listened to the completed track, he would re-sing a part or offer a suggestion. This final step is the only part of their process that did not happen during the recording of Highways.
There is more than one ghost haunting this album. Cash's wife, June Carter Cash, passed away months before he did. It was during those months many of these songs were recorded. It was because of her passing he immersed himself in work, singing every day he felt physically capable. Cash sang of love won and lost thousands of times in his 46-year career and many times did it in better voice. He never came closer to sounding broken, heartbroken, than he does in these songs. Listen to opening track "Help Me" and try to keep your throat from closing just a little. The song itself is a man asking God for help but lines like "I'm tired of walking all alone" cut just a little deeper.
A devout Christian man, he finds a spiritual theme in Bruce Springsteen's "Further On Up the Road." The song is taken from his The Rising album, an album largely inspired and informed by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. That Cash could still take a song originally recorded as a hard-driving rocker, strip it bare, and find that spiritual quality in the lyrics demonstrates what an amazing gift he had as an interpreter and storyteller. It also reveals what many Springsteen fans have always known – his songs are dense, layered, and open to innumerable interpretations.
Cash proves that what is left can be nearly as revealing as the whole. Hearing him sing these songs in the weeks prior to his passing, age having robbed him of much of his vocal power, tells an incredible story. He does not need to say a word. We understand as soon as we hear him sing the first note. Any number of aging artists could give us that much but everyone knows "TheVoice." We have all heard the mythic "Man in Black." Hearing what is left of that voice and knowing what it was communicates more powerfully than the words of any poet or lyricist. He could have easily stopped recording when his health and voice began to fail him and no one would have blamed him. Instead, he left us one more gift. Listen to "Cry, Cry, Cry" and "Like the 309." "Like the 309" is, according to Rubin, the last song Cash ever wrote and likely one of the last he ever recorded. The distance from life to death is more tangible. There is now a measure of just how much is lost.
A Hundred Highways succeeds because of wise song selection and presence. His vocal power had slowly left him over the years. He was still capable of interpreting songs but not just any song. It had to be the right song. There are plenty of stories to be told by a tired, weary man. In his younger years, he told those stories with empathy in his voice. He told those stories as a man who had not lived them but saw them in his future. On A Hundred Highways, he sings them while looking in his rearview mirror. Johnny Cash's willingness to immortalize his frailty and mortality was one more act of defiance from a man personified the act.