Monday, July 3, 2006

Johnny Cash

American V: A Hundred Highways

American Recordings

Recorded just before his death in 2003, the 12 songs on Johnny Cash’s “American V: A Hundred Highways” compile the haunting record of a soul battered but wise and staring straight into his own grave.

His wife of 34 years, June Carter Cash, died in the midst of the recording sessions, leaving Mr. Cash nearly inconsolable, except for the consolation of music. This was not an album he was expected to record. The powerful medication he took to control his Parkinson’s disease exacted a heavy toll, as did the diabetes that eventually took his life.

The fifth and final installment of the Rick Rubin-produced “American” series is not the best of the group, but it is beautiful for the plaintive humanity of Mr. Cash’s signature growl and its mix of gospel and secular songs.

Though the star’s profound Christian faith is known to fans of his music, people who know Mr. Cash through the 2005 biopic ” Walk the Line” will be forgiven for not understanding the extent to which themes of sin and forgiveness, prayers to God and references to prophecy inform not only in his lyrics but in his posture and tone. Like much of his recent work, the songs written and covered by Mr. Cash exhibit a tension between the wrathful God of the Bible’s Old Testament and the forgiving son of God in the New Testament.

“God’s Gonna Cut You Down,” a traditional gospel song and the CD’s second track, is a good example of the former, but “I Came to Believe” is a surprisingly upbeat autobiographical elegy on the self-abnegation of spiritual rebirth. “In childlike faith, I gave in, and gave Him a try,” Mr. Cash sings, “and I came to believe in a power much higher than I.”

He directly confronts his own death in “Like the 309,” a song about the train scheduled to carry his body home. Mr. Cash only recorded the vocal tracks before his death, but the overdubbed walking blues acoustic guitar and train-whistle electric licks added by producer Rubin fit perfectly.

Of all the songs on the album, though, Mr. Cash’s cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Further On Up the Road” best reflects both the saint and sinner of his Man in Black persona. The violent, uneasy but essential co-existence of the base and the divine is informed by the Pentecostalism of Mr. Cash’s youth, and it comes across unexpectedly in the way his famous gravel voice — diminished by age and ravaged by disease — delivers Mr. Springsteen’s lyrics: “Got on my dead man’s suit/and my smiling skull ring/ My lucky graveyard boots/ And a song to sing/ I got a song to sing/keep me out of the cold/ And I’ll meet you further on/up the road.”

“A Hundred Highways” is more than a required purchase for Johnny Cash completists. It’s a profound and stirring ode to both the virtues of one man’s faith — and the power of music to reflect the stirrings of the soul.

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