Cash, Petty’s new releases serve up rustic Americana

By Oliver Mosier

Tom Petty’s latest solo release, Highway Companion, attempts to firmly place the artist in the sound of Americana. Petty constantly evokes nostalgia, a cornerstone of the American musical experience. Images of Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper out on the open road immediately come to mind. Petty sings one for the road.

The tenor of the record increases as the tracks roll on. Highway Companion starts off rather calmly, only to be met with unadulterated rock on songs like “Flirting with Time” and “Big Weekend.” On the record, Petty returns to what he knows—real American rock ’n’ roll. The record is neither particularly innovative nor in any way groundbreaking. However, Highway Companion does not profess to possess those rarely found musical qualities. It is Full Moon Fever for the 21st century.

While driving is closely tied to Petty’s music, Petty seems equally connected to backyard barbeques and beers with the guys. At Bonnaroo (see related article in this issue), Tennessee’s music festival in June, Petty and the Heartbreakers showcased much of Highway Companion. In many ways, Petty is a seasonal musician. His music exists in a perpetual summer, where the sun never sets on the road and the drive never ends. The only way I can imagine enjoying his music during the winter would be to pretend it’s July. When you’re driving along Lake Shore Drive on a typical cold winter night, and “Free Fallin’” or “Refugee” comes on the radio, there are only two appropriate actions: windows down, volume up.

The album fulfills the artist’s intentions and is exactly what it purports to be: a musical companion to the open road. No stranger to road trip anthems, Petty is knee-deep in his musical strengths. Highway Companion is a solid album from an unbelievably consistent artist who has shied away from the ambitious in favor of the traditional.

One of Tom Petty’s musical heroes, country legend Johnny Cash, died at age 71 in 2003. Cash represented the archetypal American storyteller. With a unique voice, ever-present humor, and lyrical depth, Cash was more Mark Twain than Hank Williams. Cash transcended the norms and conventions of the country music genre, and there is a large group of people who love Cash but have no connection to the genre as a whole. In 2002 he released American IV: The Man Comes Around, an album many thought would be his last. He reworked Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” with remarkable success. Heralded as the beautiful and final chapter in Cash’s long recording career, American IV was met with a bittersweet response. The end is a difficult thing to deal with, and no one knew this more than Cash himself.

Under supervision of Rick Rubin, Cash’s American series producer, the summer of 2006 saw the release of American V: A Hundred Highways, which was recorded in 2002 and 2003 just prior to Cash’s death. The songs take on a newfound gravity with the realization that the Man in Black is finally gone.

The liner notes, penned by Rubin, explain the story behind the record. Rubin ends the notes by writing, “I hope you are as moved by Johnny’s storytelling on this collection as I am…. I love you, John.” These are truly touching words from Cash’s producer for the last decade.

Cash delivers a beautiful cover of Ian Tyson’s “Four Strong Winds.” Bob Dylan recorded the song during the legendary basement tapes sessions. Neil Young recorded it on his album Comes a Time and also played it with the Band during the Last Waltz. Cash’s version is a worthy counterpoint to these past covers.

American V is essentially the last breaths of Johnny Cash. One last gasp for air. One last “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.” One last album from an artist whose career needed no introduction. He walked many highways and lived many lives and eventually conquered his demons on a way to long awaited peace. While Tom Petty’s album may be one for the road, Cash’s final record is a companion for life.

The song “Like the 309” directly addresses death. You can feel it in the studio with Cash. His entire life he sang at, to, and about death. It is fitting that in his final musical testament, Cash appears to have found peace. The last song on the album voices Cash’s final state of mind, as he sings, “I’m free from the chain gang now.”

While mortality may have been an obsession for much of Cash’s life, he appeared to have come to terms with his own imminent demise by the recording of American V. One can easily hear the pain in his voice. He accepted the inevitability of his physical and mental death. One death he could not accept was a musical one. He understood that some part of him would live forever in his music. Johnny Cash preserved his life musically despite his preoccupation with his death physically. It would be nice if Cash takes a page out of Tupac Shakur’s book and continues to release albums from the netherworld. However, with American V: A Hundred Highways, the Man in Black leaves the stage to one final standing ovation.

Highway Companion is a good, albeit traditional, record from a rock legend. Tom Petty’s first solo album since Wildflowers in 1994 contains no surprises or real depth. It is merely a visceral illustration of American rock. Johnny Cash’s posthumous American V: A Hundred Highways, on the other hand, is a beautiful and melancholy epilogue to a most brilliant career.