Softly As I Leave You

Johnny Cash - American V: A Hundred Highways

I'm not sure an album has ever hit me the way this one has. I've been incredibly affected by individual songs, and I've had albums that could change my mood over the course of 45-ish minutes, but listening to this for the first time was different. It grabbed me from the very first song, and I literally could not move until it was over. It is that powerful. Even if he werent basically singing his own eulogy, this would be an amazing album. But the fact that he recorded his vocals mainly in the months between the passing of his wife and his own death adds an almost overwhelming gravity to the performances.

Unlike the four previous Rick Rubin produced albums, there are no covers of any "modern rock" songs on this collection. Thematically, the songs concern faith, love, loss, redemption and death. But despite the heavy subject matter, its comes off as reflective rather than depressing. Throughout his American albums, he's been brilliant at reinterpretting other's songs and bringing new meaning to them, and his take on Gordon Lightfoot's "If You Could Read My Mind" is perhaps the best example of this yet. It makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck every time I listen to it.

Apart from the stomp-and-clap accompaniment on "God's Gonna Cut You Down," the album is completely free of percussion. In fact, except for some occasional piano and organ, Cash's vocals are framed almost entirely by guitar. But its not as sparse as American Recordings (Cash and Rubin's first collaboration). Rubin has done a great job of creating beautifully textured arrangements that perfectly fit Cash's often fragile but always poignant performances. Johnny never heard the arrangements (most of backing tracks were recorded after his death), but I cant imagine he'd be anything less than thrilled with the way they turned out.

Cash was without a doubt one of the most influential artists in the history of recorded music. In fact, the only two male singers I would put up there with him are Frank Sinatra and Hank Williams. A Hundred Highways easily stands among the best work he's ever done. I dont think there has ever been a more perfect and appropriate coda to the career of a musical icon.

Listen to "God's Gonna Cut You Down" and "Like The 309" in streaming audio on myspace, or check out song clips and interviews with Cash and Rubin on Lost Highway's American V podcast. If you can get past the cheesy narration, its a good listen.

post title by Frank Sinatra


And to think you were "too cool" in 1986 to have your picture taken with Johnny when he drove out and stopped as we were showing his place to family...
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