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Johnny Cash: American V -- A Hundred Highways

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Bloviating Zeppelin: Johnny Cash: American V -- A Hundred Highways

Bloviating Zeppelin

(in-ep-toc'-ra-cy) - a system of government where the least capable to lead are elected by the least capable of producing, and where the members of society least likely to sustain themselves or succeed, are rewarded with goods and services paid for by the confiscated wealth of a diminishing number of producers.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Johnny Cash: American V -- A Hundred Highways

Yes, this is an album review but likely not one you were expecting here on Bloviating Zeppelin.

First, I preface my comments by saying that my musical tastes are nothing short of esoteric and ranging from King Crimson to Dean Martin, Gentle Giant, Rush, Three Man Army, Material, ELP, Rob Zombie, Weather Report, Frank Zappa, Tony Bennett, Tool, Modern Jazz Quartet, Wishbone Ash, Foghat, Yes, Cheap Trick, Disturbed, Black Sabbath, Roy Wood, Be Bop Deluxe, Therion, Frank Sinatra, Porcupine Tree, Vivaldi, Procol Harum, ELO, Beethoven, Captain Beyond, Fairport Convention, Bryan Beller, The Kinks, Primus, Neil Young, Warren Zevon and on and on. I enjoy most every musical venue save that of rap, which simply is an excuse for showcasing those persons with no musical talent whatsoever -- and is insulting, racist and sexist to boot. Jazz and the blues? Count me in.

Then I made a mistake and saw the movie Walk The Line with Joaquin Phoenix. For whatever reason that movie resonated. And I ordered the CD: The Legend of Johnny Cash -- I found I got swallowed up in the songs Walk The Line, Ring Of Fire and I've Been Everywhere -- I loved its rhythm and the lyrics and his delivery.

He started to remind me of Sinatra, with his clear delineation and distinct interpretation of a song.

Then I ordered American III: Solitary Man. That led to American IV and then the most recent release (July 4) from the Rick Rubin sessions, American V.

I am not an inherent fan of both types: country and western. Until I hit Johnny Cash. And then everything seemed to change. And now I've been listening to much of Jessi Colter (Out of the Ashes), Highwaymen, The Outlaws and now Cash's American V.

I'd never realized what a truly remarkable American icon Johnny Cash was . . .

I walked into, of all places, a Sam's Club and purchased American V last week. I listened to it as I drove back home. And I have to be honest: it hit home with me in a way that Warren Zevon's The Wind continues to drive an emotional stake into my heart any time it is played.

Warren Zevon was me and I was him. His intelligence, his sarcasm, his black wit, did the same thing: it resonated. I had attended over 10+ WZ concerts. I last saw him during his Learning To Flinch acoustic tour; he is my overall favorite musical artist. I cannot listen to The Wind without some tears welling. I cannot watch the VH1 DVD (Inside) Out without similar tears forming as I listen to WZ's voice breaking as he attempts to hit notes for his final album. He died on September 7th of 2003, of mesothelioma, at age 56.

Well I went home with a waitress
The way I always do
How was I to know?
She was with the Russians too!

I listened to American V and found myself captivated from, essentially, the first notes.

This is clearly not the best singing you would ever hear from Johnny Cash; predominantly, in truth, the singing is very poor. Another Rick Rubin (and the final album for Johnny Cash) production, the album has no echo on his voice; it is what it is. Some songs contain the breaking of Cash's voice. He hits the notes he can and misses some. He is weak. In one song you can clearly hear him make a huge intake of necessary air in order to continue singing the next line.

It makes the album all the more poignant and striking to me. This is his last hurrah and, it turns out, his recorded goodbye to not only his life but the love of his life, June Carter. His song selection makes this obvious.

It is also his final preparation for his crossing and making good his life with the Lord. That much is also obvious in his song selection -- with also his song selection in American IV: The Man Comes Around. And in that case The Man was, of course, his God.

I am listening to American V as I write this.

The first cut, Help Me, is an immediate appeal to his Lord:

I never thought I needed help before,
Thought that I could get by, by myself
But now I know I just can't take it, anymore
And with a humble heart on bended knee, I'm begging you please
For help

The second cut, God's Gonna Cut You Down, caught me with its simple and overwhelming rhythmic stomp-and-clap track. It demands your attention and accentuates Cash's voice, with some wonderful acoustic slide guitar. I initially found this the most compelling track on the entire album. It is simple and yet cascadingly effective.

Go tell that long-tongued liar,
Go and tell that midnight rider,
Tell the rambler, the gambler, the back biter
Tell 'em that God is gonna cut 'em down
Tell 'em that God is gonna cut 'em down.

The third cut, Like The 309, caught my attention with its reference to trains. But it goes farther than that, insofar as Johnny seems to acknowledge, for the first time in this collection, his mortality and possible imminent demise:

It should be a while before I see Dr. Death
So it would sure be nice if I could get my breath
Well I'm not the cryin' nor the whinin' kind
Till I hear the whistle of the 309

Johnny Cash advocates what I want for me when I die:

Put me in my box on the 309

I'm into railroads and locomotives and my local historic lines; I've told my fiance that, when I die, I want to be cremated. And I told her: put my ashes in a coffee can, find an open boxcar, and send me on my way. Let me take a journey that may never end. It is, however, on this song that you can hear Johnny Cash take a hit of oxygen during the recording.

His next song is a cover of Gordon Lightfoot's If You Could Read My Mind. The guitar and piano come in strong as does his voice -- but on this cut his voice somehow comes in closer and manages a more personal tone than prior songs. His voice, being somehow closer to the mic, also breaks later on a number of lines. Rather than being re-recorded, Rick Rubin decides to leave them in. That, too, is telling.

If you could read my mind, love.

Further On Up The Road summarizes Cash's life; it could be a summary of my life or your life or someone's life that extolled a vagabond's ways. I found this song, with its sentence pauses, wonderful to parrot and sing though I didn't know its words.

One sunny morning
We'll rise I know
And I'll meet you further on
Up the road

On The Evening Train is, in my estimation, an immediate tribute to his recently-passed wife, June Carter Cash. He misses her horribly and manages to express this on the cut.

The slow guitars and piano betray the song, and the lyrics reveal:

The baby's eyes
Are red from weeping
It's little heart
Is filled with pain.
Oh Daddy, it cried
They're taking momma
Away from us
On the evening train.

Johnny Cash becomes not only the father but the baby in this song, acknowledging his loss directly and vicariously on this song.

I Came To Believe is another tribute and an acknowledgement to his God:

And I came to believe in a power much higher than I
And I came to believe in that I needed help to get by
In childlike faith in gave in and gave him a try
And I came to believe in a power much higher than I.

The next song, Rod McKuen's Love's Been Good To Me, was originally recorded by Frank Sinatra, and his voice is strong here:

I've been a rover
I have walked alone
Hiked a hundred highways
Never found a home
Still in all I'm happy
The reason is, you see
Once in a while along the way
Love's been good to me

A Legend In My Time is a moderately slow guitar tune which extolls Cash's propensity for broken hearts and love that is in vain and, in my opinion, the weakest cut on this album if for no other reason than its spoken verses. It is thankfully short.

The next, Rose Of My Heart, also includes his love for June Carter:

We're the best partners this world's ever seen
Together we're close as can be
But sometimes it's hard to find time in between
To tell you what you mean to me

You are the Rose of my Heart
You are the love of my life
A flower not faded nor falling apart
If you're tired rest your head on my heart
Rose of My Heart

He clearly sings this to the love of his life, June Carter Cash.

I cannot listen to this and but not cry.

Johnny Cash next covers Four Strong Winds, a song written by Ian Tyson and performed by Ian & Sylvia in 1963, and his voice sounds the strongest so far -- despite the subject matter being predominantly winter -- for good lyrical reason.

The final cut on the album is I'm Free From The Chain Gang Now, and decrees not only Cash's freedom from this extant earth, but in simple guitar form:

I got rid of the shackles that bound me
And the guards that were always around me
There were tears on the mail
Mother wrote me in jail
But I'm free from the chain gang now

Johnny Cash hits lows in his voice that had yet to reach on the album, making me wonder if this was in fact the first or the last cut he had recorded. What, in fact, was his final cut?

I suspect we shall never know.

This entire album was the most intimate look at an artist I can feature. I could only wish that Rick Rubin had somehow managed to record Warren Zevon's final album. I believe it could only have been better than what existed.

But we shall never know.

We shall never know.

Their final albums: I now and always shall shed a tear when I listen.



Blogger Bushwack said...

I've always like the Cash man.

Sun Aug 06, 08:07:00 PM PDT  
Blogger bigwhitehat said...

Oh this is only the begining of a wonderful ride. Country has several amazing artist and songwriters. Get to know them. They will blow your mind.

Sun Aug 06, 08:38:00 PM PDT  
Blogger Bloviating Zeppelin said...

There is no other.

Than Johnny Cash.


Sun Aug 06, 08:40:00 PM PDT  
Blogger Gayle said...

I grew up with Johnny cash. That dates me! He cut his first record while I was in my teens. I know by heart most of his songs, including "I Walk the Line" and "Ring of Fire." He was truly something else and is indeed an American Icon.

Thanks for a great post and for taking me away from what is going on in the Middle East for a bit, BZ. Blessings! :)

Mon Aug 07, 08:39:00 AM PDT  
Blogger Bloviating Zeppelin said...

Gayle: Warren Zevon's final album changed me, and for whatever reason Cash's final album has changed me as well. I wish I could put my finger on it -- but this album shakes me to my very core.


Mon Aug 07, 02:53:00 PM PDT  
Blogger Bloviating Zeppelin said...

BWH: Okay, who else would you recommend in the country world?


Tue Aug 08, 01:29:00 PM PDT  
Blogger Jones House Music said...

Hey BZ

Just wanted to let you know we are doing a tribute to WZ in Santa Ynez CA. I know that is probably quite a drive for you but I think it will be worth your while.


Sat Nov 03, 03:36:00 PM PDT  

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