Johnny Cash's Failing Voice Sang a Strong Farewell
Wednesday, July 5, 2006
Even in life, Johnny Cash dressed for death, favoring the funereal colors of a perpetual mourner. Hence his nickname, the Man in Black.
Death also lurked in the country great's catalogue; that was especially true during his final decade, when he resuscitated his flat-lined career by releasing four acclaimed albums under the guidance of iconoclastic rap and rock producer Rick Rubin. Shot through with messages of mortality and late-life repentance, the terrific "American Recordings" series was poignant and profound. It was also darkly comedic, in the case of the infamous 1994 murder ballad "Delia's Gone."
But no album in Cash's catalogue explores quietus quite like his latest CD, the posthumously released and positively extraordinary "American V: A Hundred Highways."
Recorded over the last months of Cash's life -- from 2002 until his death on Sept. 12, 2003, at the age of 71 -- the newest "American" album is essentially the sound of a man preparing to die.
Rather than a depressingly morbid recording, though, it's an elegiac song cycle on which Cash comes across like a man who is very much at peace with the inevitability that's hovering over him. He'd just like to share some of his wisdom and say farewell before he goes. God willing, of course, for Cash was nothing if not deeply spiritual in the last half of his life.
"Oh, Lord, help me to walk another mile, just one more mile," he prays on an album-opening cover of Larry Gatlin's "Help Me," over a finger-picked acoustic guitar. (The guitar, as with much of the rest of the CD's instrumentation, was added after Cash's death, as Rubin fleshed out the material with tasteful instrumental overdubs courtesy "American" series regulars Mike Campbell, Benmont Tench and Smokey Hormel, among others.)
"It should be a while before I see Doctor Death, so it would sure be nice if I could get my breath," Cash sings on the last song he wrote, the chilling "Like the 309." The chugging country-blues track is centered on one of Cash's other favorite lyrical concerns; but really, trains are just another vehicle through which he can explore his impending end. "Take me to the depot, put me to bed, blow an electric fan on my gnarly old head," Cash sings matter-of-factly in a weather-beaten voice. "Everybody take a look, see I'm doin' fine, then load my box on the 309."
Even cover songs that weren't originally about death are transformed into tracks about temporality and the afterlife.
Ian Tyson's "Four Strong Winds," for instance, is a breakup song long favored by Neil Young. But in Cash's old hands, it becomes a different kind of goodbye, particularly as he sings: "Well our good times are all gone, and I'm bound for moving on. I'll look for you if I'm ever back this way."
Gordon Lightfoot's "If You Could Read My Mind" is also about a broken relationship. But not so in the context of a posthumous Johnny Cash album, as he sings of being an imprisoned ghost, giving the old folk-pop hit considerable gravitas along the way. "You know that ghost is me, and I will never be set free as long as there's a ghost that you can't see," Cash sings.
Here, as in other spots throughout the album, he sounds like a shell of his former self, booming baritone reduced to a fragile whisper. He also sounds short of breath -- an issue he playfully addresses on "Like the 309," noting, "Asthma's coming down like the 309," before exhaling loudly.
Whereas a similar vocal degradation might render other artists unlistenable, it seems to work in Cash's favor on "American V," bringing even more intimacy and raw emotion to the source material. The result is arresting -- and not necessarily surprising. Even in his peak years, during the 1950s with Sun Records and the '60s and '70s with Columbia, Cash wasn't a technically superlative singer, what with imperfect pitch and limited range. But he became one of country music's -- heck, American music's -- greatest vocalists through his ability to convey honest emotion.
Cash was in poor health during the "American V" sessions, suffering from pneumonia, glaucoma and asthma, among other ailments (he died of complications from diabetes), so an engineer and guitarist were kept on call, to be summoned to the studio on days when Cash was feeling well enough to sing. And he apparently sang enough for a second farewell; though Rubin refers to "American V" as "Johnny's final statement," the producer is preparing another album for posthumous release.
Cash pressed on even after his wife, June Carter Cash, died May 15, 2003, following heart surgery. In fact, according to Rubin, recording became Cash's reason for being at that point, "the only thing he had to look forward to." And so the album includes a valentine to June: an elegant cover of Hugh Moffatt's "Rose of My Heart."
June was also the inspiration for an interpretation of Hank Williams's heartbreaking "On the Evening Train," but Cash somehow manages to avoid sounding completely disconsolate on the song, which is about a man tearfully sending his wife's long white casket away on a train.
Perhaps he simply knew he wasn't long for this world. On the liberation ballad "I'm Free From the Chain Gang Now," the final song of the farewell, Cash seems to be singing from the Great Beyond, in a voice that's strong and sturdy and, yes, completely full of life.