“Everyone take a look, see I’m doing fine/Put me and my box on the 309.” The stark symbol of a coffin being placed on a train bound for some unknown location is only one of the many allusions to love, death, and the afterlife on Johnny Cash’s posthumous recording “American V,” released last week. The twelve songs on “American V” poignantly reflect Cash’s coming to terms with his own mortality in the months after his wife June Carter Cash’s death and prior to his passing in September, 2003. During this time, though he was weakened by asthma and diabetes, Cash reportedly found solace in returning to the recording studio one last time to do what he had done many times before in his career–share his deepest joys and sufferings with his fans.
While the brooding and frail vocals on a heart-wrenching song like “Help Me” might be a bit too painful for any but the most die-hard Cash fans to listen to, other songs are as enjoyable as they are thoughtful. “Rose of My Heart” and “Love’s Been Good to Me” are sweet tributes to his late wife, while songs like “If You Could Read My Mind” and “A Legend in My Time” are humble, and occasionally slightly humorous, musings about how his career will be remembered after he is gone.
It’s unfortunate that much has been made in the press over whether or not this musical farewell truly represents Cash’s final wishes (the final song choices were all made by producer Rick Rubin after Cash died) because “American V” feels like it is a labor of love for Rubin as much as it must have been for Cash. More importantly, this is a tour-de-force celebration of a life fully realized. As I listened to the tracks of this recording over and over again, I couldn’t help but think to myself that here was a man who had loved passionately, felt fully every experience he had–good and bad–and now had come to a place of total peace with his life. And the reason for that peace was clearly God. Cash has certainly sung about his faith before, but perhaps never with this much vulnerability. Songs like the remake of his hit “I Came to Believe” and the vibrant, foot stomping rendition of “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” give listeners fresh glimpses into the depth and fervor of his faith.
While it remains to be seen as to whether or not “American V” will actually be the last musical journey of Cash (Rubin has come out in recent interviews saying that there are more than enough tracks to release for an “American 6”), with this recording Cash’s musical and spiritual legacy will now not only include his unflinching views of life, but his calm, unwavering sense of hope in the face of death.