Johnny Cash - American V: A Hundred Highways

"From the mid seventies onwards no one was really bothered about Johnny Cash. If he did crop up in the news it was likely to be for a bizarre reason, such as the time an ostrich on his farm kicked out and almost killed him. "

Johnny Cash – American V: A Hundred Highways


It was only in the 1990s that people began to take notice again. From the mid seventies onwards no one was really bothered about Johnny Cash. If he did crop up in the news it was likely to be for a bizarre reason, such as the time an ostrich on his farm kicked out and almost killed him. Mind you his career had always had its ups and downs. Once, as I seem to recall, he decided to commit suicide by getting behind the wheel and driving the vehicle in question full pelt until he hit something. The problem was that the vehicle in question was a tractor and whatever he hit he flattened. Anyway, thanks to the albums he made over the last decade or so there is no doubt that he is now a TRUE AMERICAN ICON and rightly so. It is difficult, therefore, to keep a critical distance from an album he recorded just before he died, when he was wheelchair bound and nearly blind. It is perhaps fortunate then that American V is clearly a marked improvement on his previous two releases, and that it is an album that can be recommended unreservedly.


Gone are the eye-catching cover versions that peppered the earlier albums. This is probably a good thing as they didn't always work (the cover of Bonnie Prince Billy's I See A Darkness was inferior to the original) and if they did work they sometimes drew attention away from some of the other, stronger, tracks on the albums (the Nine Inch Nails and Nick Cave covers did this) and finally, sometimes they conferred dignity onto songs that damn well didn't deserve it (such as U2's One). So, whilst the album is mostly made up of covers they are designed not to draw sighs from the hip crowd but to showcase Cash's incredible voice and his ability to produce moving and memorable songs from simple tunes and sparse instrumentation.


Album opener Help Me is a case in point. Cash, accompanied by acoustic guitar and cello, begs the Lord to help him in his time of darkness. Subtle chord changes and understated backing music make what could easily have been a maudlin song into a genuinely affecting one. The second track - God's Gonna Cut You Down - is more muscular and features drums, handclaps and stomping feet. Even Cash's voice sounds pretty strong here. You'll know the song; it's a traditional one and Moby sampled a version of it on the track Run On. It's also a great song and Cash gives it his all, sounding wrathful rather than weary. Death has already stalked the album but it is the third track, Like the 309, where he really makes his mark. Cash sings the opening line of the song - "It should be a while before I see Doctor Death" - in a voice frail and weak. It was the last song he wrote and it was a good one to finish on. The 309 is a train and the song replicates its gentle chug as it heads along the tracks taking his body away.


If You Could Read My Mind opens in sombre fashion with piano and picked guitar. On this one he sings about being a ghost, and at times his voice appears to have difficulty saying the words. It is resolutely downbeat and sad and is, once again, wonderfully restrained. On The Evening Train deals with death again – this time the death of a young mother. What could easily have appeared lachrymose or trite – the young child's tears, the appeal to God for courage – doesn't, and again this is purely down to Cash.


Blimey, you might be thinking by this point, this album sounds pretty gloomy. And if not that then you might find the religious stuff laid on a little thick (the track Came To Believe also features an appeal to God). In fact a cynic might think that Cash was buttering up the good lord knowing that he'd be applying for a season ticket pretty soon. After all, there would be no shortage of marks in his debit column from the drinking and drug taking days. But it's not all god and death. Love's Been Good To Me features a wandering stranger looking back on the tenderest moments of his life and Rose of My Heart is a sweet love song. But the end is never far away and on A Legend in My Own Time Cash looks back at his life: "If they gave gold statuettes for tears and regret," he sings, "I'd be a legend in my own time."


Not an album to play before you go out on a Friday night then, but nor is it the doom-fest it might appear to be from the subject matter. The songs are light and airy and Cash's voice, whilst at times ravaged, is warm and comforting. When the piano and cello are used they are not thrown at the songs in a heavy-handed way, trying to wring every bit of emotion from them. In spite of everything this is not a sad album and whilst it might not be life affirming it is certainly a fitting tribute to a great singer.


Words: Christopher Dawson