Even Johnny Cash didn't expect he would outlive his beloved wife, June Carter Cash.
He had lived a rougher life and had many more health problems than she. By all accounts, her unexpected death in May 2003 hit Cash hard, and he spent his remaining months pouring his grief into song. His last recording sessions with producer Rick Rubin yielded the tunes on American V: A Hundred Highways (available tomorrow on Lost Highway/American).
It's billed as "The Final Recordings," and there is an unmistakable finality to them. Cash sounds weak, and his singing at times is thick with age. The songs are sad, with much beseeching of a higher power. "Help Me," "I Came To Believe," "I'm Free From the Chain Gang Now": These are the songs of a man making peace with his waning days.
Yet Cash's weakened baritone still bristles with determination, even if it doesn't rumble quite the way it once did. Stark, stomping percussion and ominous acoustic guitar help "God's Gonna Cut You Down" thunder with the force of a revivalist preacher as Cash warns intransigent sinners, "What's done in the dark will be brought to the light."
Most of the songs are covers, and the selection isn't as daring as Cash's singing Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt" or Soundgarden's "Rusty Cage" on earlier albums in the American series. These songs suit him, though, and his worn but still-expressive voice adds startling depth to Bruce Springsteen's "Further On Up the Road" and Gordon Lightfoot's "If You Could Read My Mind."
Among the covers, American V also features two originals: the spiritual "I Came To Believe" and "Like the 309," the last song Cash ever wrote. The latter is a bluesy, acoustic train song that shows flashes of the singer's wry sense of humor. In fact, he sounds like an irascible, if charming, old coot when he sings, "It should be a while before I see Dr. Death / So it would sure be nice if I could catch my breath."
It wasn't long before Cash saw Dr. Death. The singer died Sept. 12, 2003, just shy of four months after his wife, and three days after the release of Wildwood Flower, her final album.
Cash left behind a monumental musical legacy, including some of the best albums ever pressed to wax. American V: A Hundred Highways is a worthy addition to an extraordinary catalog.
Hear excerpts from American V: A Hundred Highways at ctnow.com/music.
Eric R. Danton is a music critic for the Hartford (Conn.) Courant.