A Hundred Highways - Johnny Cash

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Hundred Highways.jpg

In the first four American Recording albums, Johnny Cash tackled the issues of sin and redemption, questioned his faith, and ultimately came to terms with his steady march toward death, knowing that full forgiveness awaited him. (For my full take on these albums, Download file).

The latest in the American Recordings series - A Hundred Highways - comes nearly three years after his death and was recorded during the time his wife June died and while his health was steadily failing. As with the four previous albums and the unfortunately named boxset of outtakes - Johnny Cash Unearthed - we have Rick Rubin recording Johnny as he tackles old standards, new compositions, and surprising covers with spare production and minimal backup.

We find a number of themes in A Hundred Highways -- reaction to June's death... professions of faith, but the overriding theme is one of reflection. He starts off with a prayer -- asking God to help him. His voice is so frail and mournful that you almost feel that he's asking for help to finish the album he's just embarked upon, knowing that it's his last one and needs God to get these songs out.

The second song, God's Gonna Cut You Down finds Johnny in stronger voice, bringing out the fire and brimstone preacher first uncovered in The Wanderer on U2's Zooropa album and more recently in The Man Comes Around from American Recordings 4. This time the old preacher is pulling no punches, no more hints of redemption from this preacher -- only dire warnings that if you sin, God's gonna cut you down. If you aren't scared straight with this song, your soul is already lost.

Songs such as Like the 309, If You Could Read My Mind, On the Evening Train, and Rose of My Heart, are obvious reactions to June, her death, and his love for her. The old Hank Williams song On the Evening Train is especially poignant.

The second half of the album is where Johnny's spirit really comes through. These songs take on an almost confessional tone, an accounting of a full life lived, and ultimately, death and redemption. Sung in the past tense, these songs find Johnny reflecting back on his time on earth. I Came to Believe is the story of Johnny's faith, while Love's Been Good to Me his love for June. The album ends on a high note as Johnny tells us not to grieve his death, we'll meet again in the song Four Strong Winds. I'm Free from the Chain Gang Now is a celebration as Johnny welcomes becoming unshackled from the prison of his failing body, one that no longer is able to contain its undying spirit.

I've loved all the American Recording albums and the Unearthed boxset. However this album hit me hard. A Hundred Highways finds Johnny Cash at his most frail and vulnerable while at the same time strengthened by the knowledge that his faith has brought him redemption and everlasting life by God's side. A must have for your CD collection.

58 Comments

Hey Dean

Thanks again for tellin' me about your blog....I've enjoyed reading about Johnny Cash...I haven't read everything you wrote yet...I gotta get to bed soon...it's late...but just a few comments...first of all, you're a good writer....I didn't know much about Mr Cash until I went to go see Walk the Line...I liked the movie. You seem to know a lot about him. I'm intrigued how intrigued you were by the theme of forgiveness and redemption in his life. I don't remember..what religion was he?...I want to say Baptist....but anyway....I wonder if he ever went to confession...cuz he seems like a man that had a hard time forgiving himself...I feel kinda bad for him...that's one of my favorite things about my faith is confession....I really believe that when you go and talk to God and get that special blessing that you get a special grace and your sins are really forgiven....it's the greatest feeling....it makes me a really thankful, happy person to have the gift of forgiveness in my life.

Wanna know what my favorite part of your blog is?!....your Top Ten....I really rely on my friends to find new music...so that will be something I look forward to every week. Can I request something...or two....can you tell us what your favorite song of the week is?...and maybe why?

Here's my top ten for this week..in no particular order...

1. I Try-Macy Gray
2. Red Eyed and Blue-Wilco
3. Dream Baby-Roy Orbison
4. Wouldn't it be Good-Nik Kershaw
5. Young James Dean-Girlyman
6. Question-Old 97's
7. Now That I Know- Shannon McNally
8. Apologize- Anne Deming
9. In The Waiting Line-Zero 7
10. Somebody More Like You-Nickel Creek

I guess that's it.........till next week!!-Shawn

Thanks for coming by and great comments. First I'm pretty sure Johnny was Baptist.

Second, check out the article I wrote on Johnny Cash. It covers this stuff pretty extensively. I don't think Johnny went to "Confession" but I do know he asked for forgiveness, probably through prayer. Also through his songs. I really suggest you buy, download, borrow all of the American Recording Albums, they are fantastic.

Finally I have to say right now that my favorite song is On the Evening Train off the A Hundred Highways album. The lyrics, Johnny's singing, and the arrangement is just perfect. I've been listening to a lot of Wire lately so who knows my favorite song next week might be some punk song from 1977.

Great review, Dean. I was a little skeptical about purchasing this album, but you have definitely convinced me. I am such a sucker for this religiously themed stuff. Quite honestly I can't wait to get this album now after reading what you've said about it. Thanks a ton!

I finished reading all of it...and you were right...I should have read it ALL before commenting...cuz you did cover all my questions. I misunderstood the almost constant theme of Johnny as a sinner....I thought it meant he couldn't find peace...that he wasn't able to forgive himself.....but I like what you said...that "the albums can be likened to a screw....with each turn one delves deeper,"....that made sense.....and that the reoccurring theme of sin/redemption didn't mean he was boasting about his past, instead he was sharing with us the "sad recognition that sin is the price we pay for our humanity." ....and I like the idea that things in our lives don't usually go the way we want them to unless we surrender and really put them in God's hands.I really enjoyed the article "Sinner Redeemed."Thanks for sharing it with us!

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