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Johnny Cash
American V: A Hundred Highways
American/ Lost Highway Records
www.johnnycash.com


September 12 will always be a day of mourning and remembrance for me, ever since it became the day that John R. Cash left this world to join June Carter Cash in heaven. Over the past three years, I have grown to be more in awe of Johnny's music, music that I was raised on and have loved for more than thirty years… which makes me a youngster compared to some of his fans. This year, we had new music from Johnny to add to the pile of reasons to miss one of the greatest musical spirits this world has ever known.

American V: A Hundred Highways is a collection of the last recordings that John was working on with Rick Rubin prior to his passing on. Rubin's liner notes in the record speak volumes about the way that Johnny touched people's lives, both through his music, and, for those fortunate enough to know the man, through his everyday life. The songs on this record are a continuation of the last few recordings that Johnny released - they are tender prayers of a heart that knows it is not long for the world - songs that deal mainly with death and the situations that surround the passing of a loved one. And while some of the tracks are soft, and you can hear Johnny's failing health and his longing to see June plainly, there are also tracks that are as strong as anything the man ever recorded. "Help Me" starts the album off with the strongest of sentiments that came straight from Johnny's heart: "Oh Lord, help me to walk another mile, just one more mile/ I'm tired of walking all alone/ Lord, help me to smile another smile, just one more smile/ Don't think I can do things on my own…" You can hear the loneliness in the man's voice as he struggles to live in this world without his love. If the album ended here, it would still be a perfect last word from Johnny, and one well worth the wait.

Johnny's take on the traditional folk tune "God's Gonna Cut You Down" is full of a fierce brimstone, beseeching the masses to pay heed to the call from the Master before it is too late. Johnny gives the world one last train song with "Like The 309", but this time, the train isn't simply an escape from prison or a reason to cry because it's taken someone away, this time the train is taking the body to its resting place so that the soul can go on. The track is fairly dark, but filled with a strange joy and hope, and Johnny's voice is resplendent and playful as it mischievously moves among the bluesy, acoustic slide guitars. Johnny gives a somber tone to the Gordon Lightfoot classic "If You Could Read My Mind". This is one of Lightfoot's very best, but presented here in Johnny's failing tremoloed voice, the song attains an almost mystical level, truly haunting in its own right. Springsteen's "Further On Up The Road" continues the dark vein, but Johnny seems filled with a stronger resolve about the outcome of death and what may come after. "On The Evening Train" was written by Hank Williams - incredibly, I don't recall ever having heard him play it - and is a fitful prayer about saying goodbye to those we love, and finding a way to deal with the loss. The song is perhaps Johnny's last way of saying to his friends and family that he'll see them again, when they join him up home.

Johnny's "I Came To Believe" is a departing statement about being true to oneself, and ultimately to a higher power that can take pain and confusion away. The version of Rod McKuen's "Love's Been Good To Me" is playful in its sincerity, while Don Gibson's "A Legend In My Time" is filled with a regret befitting the lyrical content. Hugh Moffatt's "Rose Of My Heart" is the perfect love song in the voice of Johnny, the track is tender and peaceful. Ian Tyson's classic "Four Strong Winds" as sung by Johnny has a certain softness to it that belies the strong sentiments it contains, but is here implacable and filled a strange lonely power. The old spiritual "I'm Free From The Chain Gang Now" is perhaps the most fitting way to end this last recording from John… as it is a beautifully rich recording of an amazing song, but you can hear it in Johnny's voice… he's free from this world know, and in a happy place once more.

While this new collection of songs haunts me, it seems that it was just the exact kind of therapy that John needed to make his departure a little bit easier. There are many points on the album that the listener can empathize with John, knowing he's working through things for his own coming journey, as much as he is trying to let us all know that all will be well without him here. But we should find our loves and our truths and hold on to them as he did. Johnny was a passionate and fierce man, and I miss him everyday. But I thank him for leaving this last bit of music to help tie things up.

God bless you, John. I hope June and you are very happy.

-Embo Blake

Track Listing:
1. Help Me
2. God's Gonna Cut You Down
3. Like The 309 (the last song Johnny wrote & recorded)
4. If You Could Read My Mind
5. Further On Up the Road
6. The Evening Train
7. I Came To Believe
8. Love's Been Good To Me
9. A Legend In My Time
10. Rose Of My Heart
11. Four Strong Winds
12. I'm Free From The Chain Gang Now


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