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.