The songs that comprise "American V: A Hundred Highways" are as eclectic an assortment as any on the previous albums in the American series: "Help Me," a poignant plea to God, the hauntingly beautiful ballad "If You Could Read My Mind," "God's Gonna Cut You Down," a traditional spiritual, the touching "Love's Been Good To Me," the heartrending "On The Evening Train," and "Further On (Up the Road)" are among the tracks on the new album. Songwriters for the tracks run the gamut from Hank Williams to Rod McKuen to Bruce Springsteen.
In addition, two original Cash compositions are featured, "Like the 309" and "I Came to Believe." "Like the 309" is the last song Cash wrote and, like his first recorded single, 1955's "Hey Porter," is a song that incorporates one of his favorite settings, trains: "Everybody take a look/See I'm doin' fine/Then load my box/On the 309." "I Came to Believe" is a song he wrote and originally recorded earlier in his career, and addresses the pain of addiction and connecting to a higher power.
"I think that 'American V' may be my favorite of all of the albums in the American series," said Rubin. "It's different from the others, it has a much different character. I think that this is as strong an album as Johnny ever made."
The months following the May, 2003 passing of his wife June Carter Cash, were among the most physically and emotionally painful times in Cash's life, but keeping focused on the recording of "American V: A Hundred Highways" proved to be his salvation. Rubin remembers, "Johnny said that recording was his main reason for being alive, and I think it was the only thing that kept him going, the only thing he had to look forward to."
Cash and Rubin began recording the songs that would find their way onto "American V: A Hundred Highways" in 2002, specifically on the day after they finished "American IV: The Man Comes Around" which was released that November. Johnny feared that "American IV" might be his last release, so Rubin suggested that he immediately begin writing and recording new material. Over the next eight months, songs were cut at Rubin's Los Angeles studio and in Nashville at Johnny's main home and at his fabled cabin located across the road. Due to Cash's frail health, Rubin arranged for an engineer and guitar players to always be on call for the days that Cash felt strong enough to work.
"He always wanted to work," said Rubin. "Every morning when he'd wake up, he would call the engineer and tell him if he was physically up to working that day. Our main concern was to get a great vocal performance. Johnny would record a song, send it to me and I would build a new track up under it. In the past, at the end of this process, he'd come to L.A. And we'd go through everything together, he would re-record any vocal bits that needed re-recording. But this time, we didn't have that opportunity."
Last year, Rubin began going through these final recordings. He admitted, "I kind of dreaded doing it, after Johnny passed, going back and listening to it...it was difficult.
"With all of the albums Johnny and I made together, our goal was for each one to be the best it could possibly be, and that remained the case with 'American V,'" Rick explained. Eventually, Cash's long-time engineer David "Fergie" Ferguson, Heartbreakers Mike Campbell (guitars) and Benmont Tench (keyboards), and Smokey Hormel (guitars), all of whom had worked on previous albums in the American series, along with Matt Sweeney (guitars) and Johnny Polonsky (guitars) went into the studio.
"We felt Johnny's presence during the whole process through to the end," said Rubin. "It felt like he was directing the proceedings, and I know that the musicians all felt that as well. Almost all of the songs were cut solely to Johnny's original vocal tracks, the musicians all keyed off his voice and were playing to him, supporting the emotion of his performance. More than once, Fergie and I would look at each other and say 'Johnny would love this,' because it was so good and so different from anything we'd done before, we knew he would be excited by what was happening."
It was decided to wait to release "American V: A Hundred Highways" until the recent Cash hubbub had run its course. What separates this album from the re-packages, compilations, movie soundtracks and everything else that has surfaced since Johnny's passing is, according to Rubin, "These songs are Johnny's final statement. They are the truest reflection of the music that was central to his life at the time. This is the music that Johnny wanted us to hear."