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Non-Prog CD Reviews

Johnny Cash

American V: A Hundred Highways

Review by Gary Hill

Anyone who's read MSJ for a while will know that I'm not exactly a country music fanatic. In fact, there was a time when I wouldn't listen to the genre at all. Even now it takes a special artist to get me to enjoy this style. Well, Johnny Cash was one of those guys. When you think about American roots music, you've got to think about Cash. It's no accident that the disc was released on July 4th. As to the country music style, truth be told much of this CD falls closer to folk music and the blues, but in many ways those two styles are closely tied to country any way. These are the last recordings that Cash made. Now there are those who have expressed some trepidation at this release. You see only the vocal recordings were done (at least as I understand it) before Cash's death. The thing is all the musicians who contributed (and the producer) worked with Cash on his last few releases. So, they certainly have a better understanding of where his musical interests in the latter parts of his life lie than most people. Add to that the fact that Cash was intending to work with all of them in turning these recordings into his next album, and you'll see that this is more of a labor of love than any sort of exploitation. This is a really strong album and such a piece of history and Americana that it belongs in just about any music fan's collection. Johnny Cash was a very unique and original man and this is a lasting tribute to his life and his work.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2006 Volume 4 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Help Me
With an acoustic guitar melody that feels a bit like something John Denver or Gordon Lightfoot might have recorded, this is an intimate piece. Cash's voice wavers at times, but this vulnerability adds a certain immediacy and honesty to the lyrics of the track. There are some pretty, but sad over-layers on later portions of the cut. It's an understated, but very emotional way to start the CD.
God's Gonna Cut You Down
This has a definite acoustic blues approach. It's a very powerful piece and one of my favorites on show here.
Like the 309
This is the first original composition of the disc. It's rather ironic that the song starts with the line, "It should be a while til I meet Dr. Death." This is another bluesy cut with a down home texture. It starts a little slowly, but once it gets going is one of the stronger numbers on show here.
If You Could Read My Mind
I mentioned Gordon Lightfoot earlier. Well, here Cash covers one his classic songs. While I do prefer the original, I'd have to say that Cash' rendition has a lot of charm and character. It's another where his voice seems to be failing him along with his failing health a bit. The thing is, rather than detracting from the song it adds a definite sense of humanity to it. 
Further On Up The Road
This Bruce Springsteen song comes across here as a killer blues number. I have to say I'm not a big fan of the boss, but if this rendition is any indication of his songwriting, I may have to give him another chance. This one is powerful and full of emotion and arguably the strongest number on show here. I love the guitar work on this one and the whole tone is simply wonderful.
On The Evening Train
This Hank Williams penned number is more country in nature than a lot of the CD. It's also a sad and very pretty ballad, and another highlight of the disc.
I Came to Believe
The only other song written by Cash, this one is more country in tone than a lot of the other material. Add into that the sound of the hymnal music that was such a part of his repertoire over the years and you have a good idea of what this track sounds like. It's really not a motif that does much for me, so this is one of my least favorite tracks on the album.
Love's Been Good To Me
This one is a folk rock type track (written by Rod McKuen) and another of my favorites on show here. It's pretty and fun.
A Legend In My Time
This cut is a slow folky sort of piece. It's not bad, but not up to the same par as a lot of the material here. I do like the spoken segment quite a bit, though.
Rose of My Heart
This is another slow folk type of piece. It's a bit stronger than the one that preceded it, though.
Four Strong Winds
This has a nice picked sound to its arrangement. It's another of the standouts on the disc. It's always a good thing to ramp up the quality on the way to the conclusion.
I'm Free From The Chain Gang Now
This might seem like it would be a blues number from the title, but actually it's more old school folk a bit like something Woody Guthrie might have done. It's a pretty and poignant number and makes a great conclusion to the disc as it's one of the strongest pieces on the album.
 
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