Monday, April 19, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘American V: A Hundred Highways,’ Johnny Cash (2006)

Honesty and openness mark of all these American recordings, especially those after Cash fell ill. His frankness in the face of mortality is part of what makes this series so compelling. And perhaps no song in the entire catalog is as devastatingly transparent as this album’s “On the Evening Train.”

Though it was originally penned by Hank Williams, I can’t imagine there was a more fitting way for Cash to cathartically process the death of June Carter than this track; and, as is the case with so many of these latter songs, he allows us to read him like an open book. It ends thus:

I pray that God will give me courage

To carry on ’til we meet again

It’s hard to know she’s gone forever

They’re carrying her home on the evening train

Gets me every time.

That’s just one of several emotionally charged moments on “American V.” The album features tracks recorded in Cash’s final days, culled into a sterling collection by the Man in Black’s latter-day collaborator, producer Rick Rubin. Opener “Help Me” is another prayer to God, while Cash original “I Came to Believe” is one of the simplest and most effective declarations of Christian faith I’ve ever heard.

It’s not all about introspection, though. Cash still manages to stomp and strut as good as ever, facing death with courage and defiance. “Like the 309” is one more train-themed original for good measure; “Further On (Up the Road)” is one of the best Springsteen covers I’ve ever heard; and his chain-gang interpretation of “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” wields a heavenly thunder.

You could make the argument, I guess, that this album’s weakness is the three-track sequence of “A Legend in My Time”/“Rose of My Heart”/“Four Strong Winds,” but even these tower over many of the cover selections from previous entries in the series.

“A Hundred Highways” is the strongest, most moving American installment. If it had been the last of the group, there could have been no better ending for Cash's career than the quiet content found in “I’m Free from the Chain Gang Now.”

This is one of my favorite CDs of all time.

Grade: A

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