David Kamp writes… Two years ago, I wrote an article for Vanity Fair about the fruitful and seemingly unlikely collaboration between Johnny Cash and the hard-rock and rap impresario Rick Rubin. The ostensible peg of the article, published in the October 2004 issue, was that the last product of the Cash-Rubin partnership, American V, was about to be released.
The article came out, but the album never did. Rubin later explained to me that his boutique label, American Recordings, was caught up in the personnel changes and ructions at Universal, American’s distribution partner, leading to a delay in new American releases. But now, with American partnered with Warner Bros. for distribution, American V will at last hit the shops. It comes out on July 4th.
A few weeks ago, Rubin kindly sent me an advance master of American V, which now carries the subtitle A Hundred Highways. I’ve been listening to it a lot. It’s magnificent, and, if anything, even more heartbreaking and death-stalked than the final Cash album released in Cash’s lifetime, American IV: The Man Comes Around, which gave us his shockingly frail version of Nine Inch Nails’s “Hurt.”
In the VF article (which I swear I’ll post soon, along with other music pieces I’ve written), I wrote about two raw, unembellished recordings that Rubin played for me, both made–like the rest of American V’s material–in the harrowing four-month period in 2003 between the death of Cash’s wife, June Carter, and his own death. The songs I mentioned, “Help Me” by Larry Gatlin and “The 309,” the last-ever Cash original, are tracks one and three of the new album. Rubin has gussied them up some for proper release, but they still sound ancient and splintery, more like outtakes from Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music than Johnny Cash records. The song between them, “God’s Gonna Cut You Down,” a traditional popularized by Odetta and done here in clomping chain-gang style, sounds even more Harry Smith-y, with Cash quavering near the top of his range* like John Jacob Niles or some faltering 1926 porch geezer.
The only thing about this album that gives me pause is its brevity–just twelve songs over forty-odd minutes. Rubin had told me he’d been toying with making American V a double, given the wealth of material he had at hand, and pointedly said he did not want to keep releasing posthumous albums, Tupac-style, because “there’s something that doesn’t feel good about the Tupac-ing.” I have to think that more of the 2003 recordings will somehow see the light of day, perhaps as bonus cuts to some deluxe American re-release down the line.