The first Johnny Cash/Rick Rubin American Recordings collaboration ended Cash's extended disappearance into the Nashville industry combine, and though at the time it was refreshing to hear him sing plain songs again, the "American" albums got better once Rubin overcame his austerity fetish and let Cash flesh the songs out. As a result, over the last decade of his life, Cash showcased his facility with just about every native pop idiom, while documenting, with no small sense of self-awareness, his declining health.
Rubin's vault of Cash recordings has been plundered once, for 2003's superb Unearthed box set; now comes American V: A Hundred Highways, which contains (according to Rubin) the last song Cash ever wrote, "Like The 309," about a funeral train. The collection also contains the usual assortment of spookily relevant covers, the best of which is a take on Gordon Lightfoot's cheeseball "If You Could Read My Mind" that comes out like a man whispering his last words to his loved ones. Throughout the album, Cash sounds frail and out of breath, as though he'd been rousted from his deathbed, set in front of a microphone, and made to sing a bunch of songs about letting go. But he musters enough strength to make each song a real performance, and not just ghoulish exploitation.
Nevertheless, it's a refreshing corrective—though not an aesthetically superior experience—to hear Cash's rich baritone and garrulous personality run through the 49 tracks on Personal File, a collection of home demos and off-the-cuff performances he recorded in the '70s. Most of the album consists of old folk songs, given chatty introductions that touch on Cash's memories of being a young music-lover. Personal File is more an archive for fans than a proper album, but it has its highlights, like a strange mini-suite of songs about the Arctic, and a spot-on rendering of John Prine's classic strip-mining protest song "Paradise." And when Cash introduces "Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes" by mumbling, "I guess the words are Elizabethan," it's a reminder both of his encyclopedic knowledge of popular songs, and his uncanny ability to imbue them with his own meaning.