On American V the fifth and, reportedly, next to last in the Rick Rubin American series, Johnny Cash’s voice sounds more powerful than it does in any prior album in the series. In the months waning up to Cash’s death on September 12, 2003, he laid down the vocal tracks as Rubin overdubbed them posthumously with instrumental contributions from keyboardist Benmont Tench, guitarist Mike Campbell of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and country musician Marty Stuart among others. During the recordings Cash was frail, ailing, and at times wheelchair bound as and his physical state was showcased in his weather beaten everyman voice. However, the vocals depict that he knew the end was near and was ready for the afterlife.
From the opener of Larry Gatlin’s “Help Me” it becomes abundantly clear that American V is an album as darkly haunting as it is beautiful making the listener cry while feeling warmth. The more rustic twang is in abundance on the traditional “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” as is the Delta blues tinged “Like the 309.”
The rendition of Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind” progresses with ease with the languid breath of the Hammond organ in the background followed by a tear jerking cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Further On (Up the Road)” and Hank Williams’ “The Evening Train” which will rip out your heart and stomp on it.
Not only did Cash seem to choose the most appropriate songs in the lyrical sense but the manner in which he sang them and how Rubin himself overdubbed and sequenced them as well. The deliverance and presentation in the end comes off as if Cash was making an epilogue of his life and times. It was at this point where he exhibited a moment of clarity and serves as an example that no matter how much trials and tribulations one faces in his life that a man can die with grace no matter what the circumstances. If God forbid, any of the artists whose songs he covered were to spend their last days in a penniless and forgotten state, it wouldn’t matter because they can die knowing that Johnny Cash did his own unforgettable transcription of their songs which is enough to make anybody die a happy and honored man.
Sure the old and rocking tracks of his like “I Walk the Line” and “Folsom Prison Blues” are and will always be legendary but with these American series, these albums show what it is all about: This one solitary voice. John R. Cash may have left this earth a little under three years ago but with tunes like these, the Man in Black will always be with us.
Johnny Cash – American IV: The Man Comes Around
Johnny Cash – American III: Solitary Man
Johnny Cash – American Recordings