MUSIC: Johnny Cash and Tom Petty
Johnny Cash, ‘American V: A Hundred Highways’
If anything, this album should be an enormous downer. Johnny Cash died in 2003, after all. This album, the latest in his amazing series recorded with producer Rick Rubin, was recorded in the final months of his life, after his beloved wife June Carter Cash died and shortly before his own passing in September 2003. Cash was ailing, probably heartsick, and reflecting on his soon-to-end-life. Sounds like a fun album, eh?
But while “American V” is often heart-wrenching, there’s something very life-affirming about this set of covers and Cash-penned original songs. There’s still strength in Cash’s oak-hard voice. If it’s not at full holler, it’s still a tremendous instrument. “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” throbs like an Old Testament judgment, with a clattering stomp of percussion and Cash’s weary refrain. A cover of the old Gordon Lightfoot tune “If You Could Read My Mind” is achingly intimate, while the bluesy “Further On Up The Road” reimagines a Bruce Springsteen track.
What’s been billed as Cash’s final original song, “Like The 309,” is a fragile meditation on death, fate and faith. Cash’s voice sounds about to crack wide open, but it works. “American V” isn’t the most dazzling of the series – the earlier CDs, when Cash was in stronger voice and presented a striking array of unlikely cover tunes from artists like Nine Inch Nails and Soundgarden, are some of his finest work. But “American V” is heavy with the sense of imminent endings, and Cash’s firm faith that something better was awaiting him on the other side.
Heavy credit is due to superb producer Rubin, who added subtle, evocative backing instrumentation to Cash’s raw demo vocal tracks. He’s filled in the sketches Cash left behind, and“American V” feels rich in the tradition of American music, from folk to country. It’s timeless music. Through toil and struggle, Cash carried on. That why when “American V” wraps up with “I’m Free From The Chain Gang Now,” you can’t help but smile a little and hope he’s happy, wherever he is now.
Tom Petty, ‘Highway Companion’
It’s nice to come home to Tom Petty again. His wry, wizened voice is something sorely missing in today’s Top 40 radio. His latest CD, “Highway Companion,” is like a familiar friend stopping by that you haven’t seen in years. It’s not cutting edge; it’s just darned fine tunes by a master of the pop song. “Highway Companion” has what much of Petty’s most recent work lacked – hooks. It’s his best CD since 1994’s wistful “Wildflowers.”
The distinctive jangle of longtime Petty bandmate Mike Campbell’s lead guitar grounds the album with friendly, open riffs. The first single, “Saving Grace,” kicks off the album in fine style, with a propulsive feel that sets the stage for the rest of the disc. The gorgeous “Square One,” which first appeared on the soundtrack to Cameron Crowe’s movie “Elizabethtown” last year, is a fine gentle ballad that feels like a companion to Petty’s earlier track “Wildflowers.” “Highway Companion” is nicely balanced between up-tempo rockers and slower ballads. There’s several tunes here that stand with Petty’s best – the quirky jingle “Jack,” the epic, yearning “Turn This Car Around,” the forlorn “Damaged By Love.” In “This Old Town,” a country-fied singalong, Petty comments on a town that’s collapsing in on itself: “I keep to myself / like everyone else / nobody says much to me.”
“Highway Companion” is a restless, questing album that’s the perfect soundtrack for a long road trip to nowhere in particular. It’s vintage Petty, and it’s fine to have him back.