Johnny Cash

American V: A Hundred Highways (American/Lost Highway) Personal File (Columbia/Legacy)

The title of A Hundred Highways, Johnny Cash's final recordings, actually understates the roads and mileage he traveled — literally, spiritually and musically — and their resonance throughout this disc. The larger-than-life Cash voice is ragged and wizened, yet it still brims with what was all along his biggest vocal gift: character that runs (and cuts) soul-deep. "Lord, help me walk another mile," he pleads as the album starts, and throughout, he still walks tall, with the exception of a tender but too tentative take on Gordon Lightfoot's "If You Read My Mind." There's no Danzig, Soundgarden, or Nine Inch Nails songs here, but instead natural choices by the likes of Larry Gatlin, Hank Williams, and Don Gibson with the left-field choices only going as far as Rod Mc- Kuen and Bruce Springsteen. As Cash sings about God, love, and mortality, the miles in his voice tremble with emotive impact, and Rick Rubin frames it all with a perfect chamber-folk sound of acoustic guitars, keyboards, and strings (and such small but potent touches as hand claps and foot stomps on "God's Gonna Cut You Down"), making this possibly the strongest set in the American series, and a final chapter rich with an eternalness that Cash surely earned after his profound life on Earth.

Personal File collects a couple of Cash's home solo recordings, many from 1973, some two decades before Rubin similarly stripped down his sound. Cut by Cash at the height of his happiness and security, it's an intimate listening experience that focuses on folk and country favorites on disc one and spiritual numbers on the second, which serves as a lovely companion to A Hundred Highways. Included are Cash compositions never recorded elsewhere, and while its informality makes this more a footnote than a landmark, standing next to the Rubin recordings, it all enhances the legacy celebrated on last year's four-CD box set, The Legend. Cash may have met his maker, but in the temporal world, this mortal icon left a record of musical humanity second to none.

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