American Recordings V: A Hundred Highways Label: Lost Highway Records
Here it is, people, the final Johnny Cash record of new and original recordings that you’ll likely ever hear. No doubt there will continue to be a slug of greatest hits collections and box sets and career-spanning offerings to keep the revenue stream robust for various record labels or the Cash estate or whomever. But with the fifth and final installment of Rick Rubin-produced American Recordings series (remember, this great tradition began in early 1994), A Hundred Highways is one hell of a swan song!
I don’t think Rubin himself is being overly sentimental by calling this final work his favorite. “It’s different from the others, it has a much different character,” offers Rubin. “I think this is as strong an album as John ever made.” While I don’t know that I could dub this his best album ever, it sure could hold a spot on any Cash chart. The American Recordings have seemed to progress in a way that has seen each release become bigger than the previous one. Bigger doesn’t always mean better, mind you, but in this case it does. In the grand scheme of things, each American Recordings was more vital than the last. A Hundred Highways makes as mighty a crescendo as one could ever hope it would.
With several old faces in the studio for support, including Heartbreakers Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench, as well as the king of slide guitar Smokey Hormel, Rubin had all the right pieces in place, not to mention endless time, to craft a fitting legacy project for his wonderful relationship with Cash. He intentionally waited for the post-death hubbub to subside and for the biographical movie (“Walk the Line”) to run its course. Cash never was, after all, interested in glamorizing anything. He notoriously shunned the industry establishment and openly criticized well-known awards and their respective shows.
Fittingly, on the birth date of America, A Hundred Highways was unveiled on July 4th. The songs are eclectic and acoustic, each one serving a purpose, all 12 perfectly suited for the final endeavor. There’s no excess here, no wasted filler, and as one might expect, the underlying theme is that of Cash calling out to God. The solemn pleas he makes in the opener “Help Me” (“But now I know I just can’t take it any more, and with a humble heart on bended knees, I’m begging you please for help!”) and unshakeable grit displayed amidst group stomps and claps on “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” are merely a hint of what songs of salvation lie ahead.
“Write me a letter, sing me a song, tell me all about it, what I did wrong. Meanwhile I’ll be doing fine, then load my box on the 309,” Cash speaks into the last song he ever wrote, “Like the 309.” Unlike previous chapters in the American Recordings series, even the most recent stuff, you can actually hear the Man in Black breathing, laboring in some instances, to tell these stories. Clearly, Rubin chose to include such intense breathing as part of the unique production, and it pays off. Fearless covers of Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind” and a sneaky gem from Bruce Springsteen’s later catalog, “Further on Up the Road”, are ideal additions here, as their themes couldn’t be more in line.
By the time you get to the album’s closer, “I’m Free from the Chain Gang Now,” a sense of life’s closure is evident. “There were tears on the mail Mother wrote me in jail, but I’m free from the chain gang now,” he quips to a lone acoustic guitar. It’s then you feel like you’ve just walked the final hundred yards of Cash’s life with him, step for step, all the while he’s recounting and reflecting in the narrative tone he came to master. According to Rubin, “These songs are Johnny’s final statement. They are the truest reflection of the music that was central to his life at the time. This is the music that Johnny wanted us to hear.”