By Mark Guarino
Johnny Cash’s death in late 2003 brought a familiar response: He was everywhere. Reissues, retrospective collections and a winning Hollywood movie brought Cash’s music and story to the masses last year. This season, three more products have their say: a DVD of a 1971 television concert, a two-disc collection of unearthed solo recordings and, most importantly, the album he was working on until his death.
For the time being, the posthumous recordings of Johnny Cash do not sink to the level of the continued output by Jimi Hendrix or Tupac Shakur. The ending statement of Cash’s life is the fifth installment of the “American” series he started with producer Rick Rubin in 1994. Newly in stores, “A Hundred Highways” (American/Lost Highway, 3.5 stars) is not necessarily compiled of scraps from Cash’s last sessions. Instead, it’s an album he fully participated in and seemed to know would be a final goodbye. You can hear it in every breath.
Cash was in and out of hospitals in 2003, he died that September. “A Hundred Highways” was recorded in-between bouts of ill health starting a year earlier. Cash suffered the death of his wife June Carter Cash that May and seemed resigned that his life was nearing a swift end. The songs he chose to record — including the last song he wrote — reflect that introspection and ultimate serenity.
But first there is the matter of Cash’s voice, one that is scarred and weary. It makes listening to these songs a difficult proposition. On “If You Could Read My Mind,” a Gordon Lightfoot song, Cash sounds physically choked on regret. Rubin pushes the vocals so forward in the mix that every frailty is exposed for better or for worse. For “Like the 309,” a shuffling death song, which happened to be the final song he ever wrote, Cash sounds like he’s catching his breath to keep up with the chugging train car beat. Despite the pain in his vocals, Cash sings with deep resolve. “Everybody take a long/See I’m doin’ fine/Then load my box/On the 309,” he sings.
The variety of songs styles and moods from the previous “American” albums is not here. Instead, the music is gently laid out on a stately bed of acoustic guitars, piano and fiddle courtesy of Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers and others. The light touch of the players creates an overall sedated mood although there are moments that do not surrender fully. A cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Further On Up the Road” is sly and defiant. The traditional “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” cuts deeper. A stomping chain gang beat creates an ominous horizon with Cash delivering a final decree: “tell them that God’s gonna cut you down.”
Back in 1971, Cash still had death on the mind even though he was much more full of life. The recent DVD “Man In Black: Live In Denmark 1971” (Sony Legacy, 3 stars) showcases Cash as a television host, a family man, a recording star in his prime. The music remains lean and rocking and there’s a twinkle in his eye as he playfully teases the camera or bumbles through rudimentary Swedish.
The television special captures the essential appeal of Cash during this time. His music is deeply troubled — when introducing “Folsom Prison Blues,” he says he hopes the song “might call attention to the troubles in the prison system” back home. But while seemingly internalizing the darkest fare, he remains a buoyant entertainer. Hamming it up with wife June Carter or testifying to the virtues of his mother-in-law Maybelle Carter, herself in a rare television appearance, Cash is a compelling performer whose multi dimensions were his chief appeals. His song “Man In Black” debuts in this performance, a calling card to the American underbelly that was being marginalized during the Vietnam conflict. That’s sent home through a string of spirituals ending the show. With Sun Records peer Carl Perkins playing alongside him, Cash is many things at once, a monument of a man who is winsome, vulnerable and steadfast in both.
Not many people knew it, but Cash stashed a treasure trove of solo acoustic recordings starting in 1973 and continuing through 1982. These recordings surface on the recently released collection “Personal File” (Columbia/Legacy, 3.5 stars). Uncovered in 2004, a year after his death, the songs are separated as either spiritual or secular and spread over two discs. The sessions feature a rare opportunity to hear Cash alone, accompanying his vocals on guitar. His pristine and dutiful performances do not reveal much, but the songs do. They are the ones of his childhood, songs that he heard on the radio and traditionals he picked up in church. Cash’s own songwriting contributions come from the spiritual side and he is aware enough of young up-and-comers — Rodney Crowell, John Prine and his stepdaughter Carlene Carter — to include one of their songs, too.
Cash offers introductions here and there, some longer than the main course itself. “Through times of loneliness, heartbreak, despair and sadness, I always found a good song of inspiration will lift me up and make me feel a little bit better,” he says early into the second disc. No doubt the feeling spreads.