Wheelchair-bound, nearly blind and close to the end, Johnny Cash nonetheless punched in for work immediately after American IV: The Man Comes Around was released in 2002. The first posthumous album in the Rick Rubin-produced American series will reportedly be followed by at least one more. Still, A Hundred Highways feels like a deathbed benediction. The snarling brawn and pitch control and oom-chicka-boom good humor of his great earlier recordings were long behind him, but it turns out those weren’t the secret of his art anyway. The glory of Cash’s records was the dignity and gravity he imparted to any old trifle his producers tossed at him, and as long as he had breath left in him, he could play the Man in Black.
Luckily, Rubin had an immaculate sense of how to frame Cash’s voice — these stark, mostly acoustic arrangements don’t try to conceal the singer’s ruined instrument but find authority in its quavers and crags. He was even better at picking songs for Cash to Cashify, and this time they’re specifically about helplessness, acceptance and romantic nostalgia in the face of approaching death. There are no transfigurations of modern-rock songs here. Instead, the repertoire comes from Americana blue chips (like Hank Sr., Springsteen and Trad. Arr., whose “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” gets a magnificently chilling performance), and Cash himself, including his final composition, a train-song-as-meditation-on-mortality called “Like the 309.” It’s a hard record to bear, but it’s a deep one: Concluding with a resigned rerecording of 1962’s “I’m Free From the Chain Gang Now,” Cash makes it clear that the prison he always sang about was his mortal body and the world.