Johnny Cash feared that 2002’s American IV: The Man Comes Around would be his last release, so producer Rick Rubin suggested that he start writing and recording new material, which they began on the day after American IV was finished. Due to his failing health, an engineer and guitar players were always on call. Towards the end, Cash suffered a number of ailments, was confined to a wheelchair, and saw the love of his life, June Carter, pass away due to complications from heart valve surgery four months before his own death brought on by diabetes, yet his spirit and humanity live on in these songs, clearly illustrating his acceptance of the inevitable and his unending love for his wife.
Like the previous selections of the series, the tracks consist of Cash’s songs, covers of other artists, and material revisited. The difference with this set is a theme ties the work together more cohesively, a concept album of sorts as he introduces us to the man behind the legend as he does playfully on Don Gibson’s “ A Legend In My Time.” Cash was undeniably a legend, but he lets us know he is no different, suffering heartaches and loneliness as we all do.
Cash used to be the rough and tough, larger-than-life, man’s man, who were the characters in his songs. You believed he “shot a man in Reno just to watch him die”, his father gave him “the gravel in your guts and the spit in your eye”, and he stood up for everyone, wearing the black for “the ones who are held back” including “the sick and lonely old”, which this album reveals he has now become.
Opening with Larry Gatlin’s “Help Me”, he begins “Lord help me to walk another mile just one more mile” that could be a line from any 70-year-old, but it’s not his age or the condition of his body that needs relief. The next line “I’m tired of walking all alone” shows that it’s his lonely heart that is causing the suffering due to June’s absence. He’s ready for God’s tender hand to show him what comes next now that she is no loner by his side.
Hank Williams’ “On The Evening Train” is a tearjerker about a family losing its mother and a man losing his wife. He doesn’t live up to his one of his wedding vows because, even though she has died, he will not part from her. “I pray to that God will give me courage/To carry on til we meet again” so they can pick up right where they left off. “Rose of My Heart” is another love song to June, expressing a sentiment he can’t tell her now, but will when they reunite.
But Cash doesn’t want you to feel sorry for him. It’s a fate we all will share because “You can run on for a long time” but “God’s gonna cut down,” he explains in a traditional number. The song keeps that old time, spiritual feel with a rhythm kept by alternating feet stomping and hands clapping. It’s oddly inspirational even if you don’t share Cash’s beliefs because no matter your faith, or lack thereof, you can’t deny the end result.
Rod McKuen’s “Love’s Been Good To Me” tells a story about a man different from Cash, who has “hiked a hundred highways” in search of love and although he’s “never found a home,” he’s happy that “once in a while along the way/Love’s been good to me.” At the end, you can either be bitter with regret or thankful for what you had; Cash makes clear he chooses the latter.
“Like The 309” is the last song he wrote and recorded. It bookends his career with the first single he recorded, 1955’s “Hey Porter”, by dealing with one of his many passions: trains. The narrators come full circle as the young man from “Hey Porter” gets off the train to return home while the old man, weakened by asthma, is ready for them to “load my box/On the 309,” so he can return home.
“I’m Free From The Chain Gang Now,” a song he recorded previously, about a wrongfully accused, recently released prisoner is a great metaphor about being freed from the shackles that bind us to this mortal coil. Being released posthumously adds to the connotation as it does to Bruce Springsteen’s “Further On (Up The Road)” and the ghost from Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind.”
Producer Rubin does a great job and mention needs to be given to the talented musicians who laid down music to Cash’s vocal tracks that perfectly augment the songs and don’t get in the way. Previous American participants include Heartbreakers Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench, and slide guitar player Smokey Hormel. Guitarists Matt Sweeney and Johnny Polansky make their debuts.
Like all great art, American V entertains, enlightens and inspires. Cash opens up with such frankness and humility that he makes me want to become a better person. I hope I come to terms as well he did “Before I see Doctor Death” staring me in the face and that I make my wife know that she’s “the rose of my heart/…the love of my life.” I could never pay back the debt of gratitude and pleasure I owe Johnny Cash for all his music, but I had thought with his passing that the sum was frozen. I was wrong.
Fans will be happy to now Rubin has enough material that he plans to use for American VI. When asked if the mood will be as heavy, Rubin replied, “Think of V as the dark before the dawn.”