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Autumn 2006 | Volume 29, Number 4 | Books, Film & Music

Cash, Veteran Musicians Ponder the Almighty

Highways of Faith

ONE SUNNY MORNIN’ WE'LLrise I know; and I’ll meet you further on up the road.” Those lines were penned by Bruce Springsteen, but now you can hear them sung by another American music legend: Johnny Cash. The 71-year-old sang those words shortly before he died in September 2003. His death, however, didn’t prevent the 2006 release of his final recording, American V — A Hundred Highways.

On the album, Cash’s voice bends, and almost breaks, from the weight of his burdens. In intimate performances of covers and originals for producer Rick Rubin, every song resonates with weariness, but also hope; loss, but also faith.

No loss grieved Cash more than the death of his wife, June Carter Cash, only four months earlier. Their famed careers have inspired tributes from artists such as Emmylou Harris, who wrote “Strong Hand,” a song honoring their marriage, and filmmaker James Mangold, whose Walk the Line chronicled their story. But, while Cash’s Hollywood biography celebrated the extramarital affair that brought him together with June, it made only passing reference to the couple’s Christian convictions.

Actor Joaquin Phoenix sang impressively in Walk the Line, but here, in songs such as “Help Me” and “Love’s Been Good to Me,” we get a real sense of Johnny Cash’s soul. Instead of wrapping up his musical career with cocky declarations of independence, he concluded by describing how “I came to believe in a power much higher than I.” Rubin notes in the CD jacket that, during some of their final meetings, Cash took communion with him.

Cash’s album isn’t the only new release in which a veteran songwriter ponders the Almighty. Beyond the borders of the Christian music industry, there are more seekers who, at different stages of their journeys, pause to look heavenward.

Bob Dylan’s album Modern Times turns a meditation on repentance and the hope of heaven into a love song: “Beyond the horizon, the sky is so blue; I’ve got more than a lifetime to live lovin’ you.”

Elsewhere, Bruce Cockburn’s album Life Short Call Now includes a song that declares “God’s too big to fit in a book,” and exhorts all believing “stumblers” to let their lights shine. Paul Simon’s new release Surprise includes the following question: “Who’s gonna love you when your looks are gone?” His conclusion? “God will, like he waters the flowers on your windowsill.” Both T-Bone Burnett and newcomer Sufjan Stevens are testifying too. The resonance of the music comes from the soulsearching honesty of the artists.

Having worked out his own salvation in fear and trembling, Cash stood on death’s threshold with humility, gratitude, and a sense of humor. Here’s hoping we all meet him — and thank him — “further on up the road.”

— By Jeffrey Overstreet

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