Diabetes had cost Johnny Cash much of his sight, and he needed a wheelchair. Losing his wife June was crushing. Yet, in retrospect, producer Rick Rubin wasn't surprised to hear Cash's plea the day after June died in May 2003.
He needed to work. He HAD to work to keep himself going.
Fulfilling Cash's request, Rubin set up a studio in a bedroom of Cash's home in Tennessee, and sent an engineer who was on call for recording for most of the rest of Cash's life. The music legend died four months after his wife.
"Sessions were booked every day and if he woke up and felt good enough to do it, he would call up and say, ‘Let's do it,'" Rubin recalled. "If he wasn't doing well enough, he'd say let's do it tomorrow."
Results of some of those sessions are evident with Tuesday's release of "American V: A Hundred Highways," the fifth and penultimate in a series of discs made with Rubin that memorably capped Cash's career. It's the most moving musical rumination on mortality since Warren Zevon's last album before lung cancer killed him.
Cash's once mountainous voice trembles and breaks in a set of songs both somber and spiritual. "Oh, Lord, help me to walk another mile, just one more mile," Cash sings on the disc's opening line. "I'm tired of walking all alone."
Among the dozen cuts is "Like the 309," the last song Cash ever wrote. It's about a train, appropriate for the man who once sang about a prisoner hearing a train whistle pass.
During those last few months Rubin regularly sent Cash assignments of songs to work on. Cash would suggest his own, and his son encouraged him to record Bruce Springsteen's "Further On (Up the Road)."
The producer sensed how important it was to keep Cash's artistic spirit alive.
"When he stopped touring, that was a terrible blow to him," Rubin said. "He loved being an artist. He felt that was why God put him on the planet. When he stopped touring, one of his main means of communication had been stopped. From that point on, he really wanted to record all the time. If he had said `let's stop,' we would have stopped."
The timing of his death surprised Rubin because Cash had been feeling better and was planning to travel to Los Angeles to work on the music.
"After June died, he was prepared to die," said Rubin, who spoke with Cash every day in those final months. "I don't think he wanted to die, but I think he was completely at an accepting stage, of whenever it was time, it would be fine with him."
Being at the end of a memorable life is clearly reflected in the song selection. Rod McKuen's sweet "Love's Been Good To Me" is a nostalgic look back by a man who feels lucky in love. Cash re-records one of his old compositions, "I Came to Believe," about how spiritual strength helped him overcome addictions.
On his own "Like the 309," he sings: "Everybody take a look, see I'm doin' fine. Then load my box on the 309."
The one selection that seems ill-conceived is Hank Williams' "A Legend in My Time," with a jarringly self-pitying tone.
Cash covers Lightfoot
One idea that provoked wildly mixed feelings among Rubin's friends who heard the album is how the first three songs — all essentially spirituals — are followed by a cover of Gordon Lightfoot's "If You Could Read My Mind." Some found the transition odd and too abrupt.
Yet the Lightfoot cover is the disc's emotional center. Cash's voice is at its weakest, but his struggles to reach the notes and enunciate the words accents the aching tenderness of the lyrics.
Cash always believed he could count on his voice, and it bothered him when it was less reliable at the end, Rubin said.
"His ability to tell a story was so strong, that even when his voice was faltering, it sounded like that was part of the storytelling," he said. "I would always tell him that. I think it would make him feel better, but I did know that he wished he had better use of his instrument in the same way he always had before."
For most of his discs with Rubin, Cash would record vocals close to home and Rubin would direct construction of musical backing tracks in Los Angeles with veteran session musicians — people like Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
Then Cash would head West to oversee the final touches and re-do some vocals if he had to. The only thing different with "American V" was, of course, the elimination of that last step.
After Cash died, the tapes sat in storage. Rubin's a busy guy — his long list of production credits includes current best sellers by the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Dixie Chicks — but that wasn't the reason. He couldn't deal with it emotionally.
Once he decided to attack the project, "it was initially traumatic and sad," he said. "But by the end of the first week it felt uplifting and positive. We felt like Johnny's presence was overseeing what was going on."
Probably because of Cash's condition and the song selections, it's a slow-tempo affair. The exception is "God's Gonna Cut You Down," with an inventive arrangement that features hand-claps and the stomping of feet.
Cash left behind enough material, about 60 songs, that there will be one more installment in the "American Recordings" series.
"Six isn't done yet," Rubin said. "But it's real good."