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Two new Johnny Cash albums in the works.


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On the day he finished 2002's American IV: The Man Comes Around, an ailing Johnny Cash began recording with longtime producer and friend Rick Rubin. They wrapped up the last of 60 tracks a week before the country giant died at 71 on Sept. 12, 2003.

Now the Man in Black is coming around again on American V: A Hundred Highways, featuring a dozen songs from sessions recorded at Rubin's studio in Los Angeles and Cash's cabin in Nashville.

Their fifth collaboration, due July 4 on American Recordings/Lost Highway Records, holds the final song Cash wrote, The 309, a poignant and amusing train yarn.

It also includes a prayerful version of Larry Gatlin's Help Me, a new take on I'm Free from the Chain Gang Now, Hugh Moffatt's Rose of My Heart, the traditional God's Gonna Cut You Down, Rod McKuen's Love's Been Good to Me and the seemingly incongruous If You Could Read My Mind by Gordon Lightfoot.

"It's an amazingly sad album," Rubin says. "At times, it's hard to get through, but it's really beautiful. It's remarkable to hear an artist of his stature being so vulnerable and open and sounding strong so late in his life. I don't think there's ever been an album like this."

But there might be another one. After ignoring the entire trove initially after Cash died, Rubin recently finished assembling American V and now is compiling tracks for American VI, which could be released within a year.

"I avoided it for a long time, because I didn't want to feel sad and I was concerned from a technical standpoint, because a lot of it was recorded when he wasn't in the best shape," he says. "I was shocked at the volume and quality of the material. Certain songs raised their hands and volunteered for this album. VI is mostly revealed but not completely."

Rubin kept an engineer and guitarist on standby around the clock so Cash could record when his health permitted. Songs were captured in the moment rather than sculpted, Rubin says, and instrumentation was built under the vocal tracks later. When his wife, June Carter, died in May 2003, a sense of urgency seemed to grip Cash.

Rubin recalls, "Once June passed, he had the will to live long enough to record, but that was pretty much all. A day after June passed, he said, 'I need to have something to do every day. Otherwise, there's no reason for me to be here.' "

The result "may be the strongest album we've made together," Rubin says. "It's not leftover scraps. It's the real deal. And it's incredible for his legacy. We live in a youth-oriented culture that throws away the old, yet young people have loved John's later records. And that was a big deal. It touched him. He wasn't doing this for himself."

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