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American V: A Hundred Highways – Johnny Cash

American V: A Hundred Highways – Johnny Cash, American Recordings 2769-02

Personal File – Johnny Cash, Columbia/Legacy 82796 94265 2

The release of Johnny Cash's American V: A Hundred Highways and Personal File represent two sides of the same coin. The sparse instrumentation on both albums the former made as part of the continuing American Recordings series with producer Rick Rubin, the latter a compilation of recordings in Cash’s home studio, most from the early 70s ultimately links them together. What separates the two is the purpose and construction of each recording. On the former, one finds the Man In Black creating what he may have subconsciously known would be his final artistic statement; the other is a relaxed affair as he makes his way through his songs and the material of others. Differences can be heard in Cash as well. The older, frailer Cash pops out occasionally, while a strong bear of a man runs through material played several decades ago.

Because Cash was plying away his days before he was reunited with his dear departed June in the heaven he so strongly believed in, the final songs that make up American V have the atmosphere of someone at peace with himself and ready for that walk through the Light to the Other Side. His attitude causes the mood to be upbeat rather than mournful. The opening track, “Help Me,” pleads for the Lord’s help in getting by in this world. In a purposeful twist it comments on the feebleness of Cash’s physical self as well as the need for divine assistance for his spiritual self. References to God, the past, and the afterlife are constants. But the songs arrangements bear artistic fruit. They correctly focus on the vocals while providing instrumentation that never ever overpowers them. With the aid of Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench of the Heartbreakers, Randy Scruggs and others, we’re treated to more than just background music.

It pushes the intensity of the numbers (the stomp rhythm on “God’s Gonna Cut You Down,” the echoes of Dylan and acoustic blues ancestors on “Like the 309,” the effective use of keyboard on “Love’s Been Good To Me”). And what would a Cash album be without a little dark humor (“Like the 309” and its line “It should be awhile before I see Dr. Death/So, it would sure be nice if I can get my breath” or “Everybody take a look/See I’m doing fine/Then, load my box on the 309”). The final track, “I’m Free From The Chain Gang Now,” has all the trappings of a hymn played at a funeral mass, one that elicits tears as much as its meant to comfort. And that’s how much of American V works in its stunning and uplifting manner. There’s an unavoidable sadness that’s balanced by happiness due to the strength of Cash’s spirit and performance.

With the release of the box set, Unearthed, and now American V, hopefully, the period has been placed at the end of the sentence of Rubin’s work with Cash. The approach on American V puts the finishing touches on a classy union of artist and producer/friend/confidant. For those who are just catching up to Cash’s final recorded product, your best bet of getting the most out of his American Recordings is to purchase the initial collaboration first, then IV, Unearthed, V, II and III.

It’s understandable that Personal File pales in comparison due to it lacking the weight of what American V represents. And with Cash as the sole player, it also misses the minimalist inventiveness of those other albums. But, its wealth of material, 49 tracks on two discs, shouldn’t be overlooked and swiftly tossed aside. One can hear the creative satisfaction Cash had while recording these songs. Working in his home studio, he used it as an opportunity to put down tunes that were a part of his history and his present state of mind. He introduces a number of them as if he’s sitting in a living room, playing an intimate session for a lucky few.

Many of the themes remain the same railroad, God and death but he manages to surprise with traditional folk songs (“Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes”), Celtic numbers (“Galway Bay”) and even a cover written by his stepdaughter Carlene Carter (“It Takes One To Know Me”). Then there’s the hypnotic recitation of “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” which caused me to remain completely still as the tale unfolded.

It’s a worthwhile addition to those who have learned to appreciate Cash in his American Recordings mode and want more. Just a man, a guitar and a rich tapestry of American songs that ran through his being and flowed out on to Ampex tape.

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