When I was kid growing up in the sixties and seventies, I was never much into Johnny Cash. Like most 13-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 its 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 had grown a little weaker as his life grew closer to a conclusion. But it's no less powerful here on what will presumably be 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 that 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, 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.