The newest, and purportedly last, installment of Johnny Cash’s “American series”, the priceless Rick Rubin-produced string of albums that rounded out Cash’s life, is American VI: Ain’t No Grave. This is the second of the American albums to be released posthumously, following American V: A Hundred Highways, and these 11 songs are mined gold from the sporadic 2002 sessions that produced the Highways record. Subsequently, there are no real surprises on Ain’t No Grave. After all, it’s difficult to imagine anyone being introduced to the series starting at this point, so if you’ve listened to the spare, scraggy Highways, a glance at Ain’t No Grave‘s tracklist will tell you pretty much what to expect this time.
That predictability doesn’t mean, however, that Ain’t No Grave is an album to ignore or that it’s a collection of patchy leftovers that weren’t good enough to include on Highways. If anything, Ain’t No Grave is, song for song, a more effective record than the last installment and, therefore, provides a more fitting resolution to Johnny’s recording career. The music is again uniformly spare, overdubbed with just guitar — Mike Campbell’s or Smokey Hormel’s or Jonny Polonsky’s — and Benmont Tench’s piano and organ backdrops. Cash’s voice is far thinner here, his famous tremolo is faster, and he slurs noticeably — time and illness and grief (he had just lost June) had taken a toll, but he sings, as always, with conviction, and he sounds as determined as ever to make these songs his own.
The success in large part on this sixth collection, as with the entire series, comes down to song selection, which Rubin has overseen with excellent taste. Talk about a dream job: Thinking up cool songs for Johnny Cash to cover. And Cash was an incredible trooper over the ten-year period that Rubin recorded him, taking on everything from country to metal to pop standards with equal alacrity. Cash only rarely refused a tune, recording over a hundred different songs for the first in the series, American Recordings, alone. (Exception: Cash wouldn’t sing “Imagine” because he couldn’t get behind John Lennon’s wouldn’t-it-be-awesome-if-no-one-believed-in-God sentiment.)
As the collaboration with Rubin continued, Cash grew sicker and then lost June (who would’ve thought she would have gone first?), at which point nearly every song Cash recorded was shot through with the weight of impending mortality. Cash’s fierce scorched-earth rumble started to hit harder than before and, subsequently, drew the attention of a new generation of rock fans. “Hurt” is, of course what did it for the kids. Badly overhyped though it was, the song, the Nine Inch Nails cover that Cash recorded for 2002’s American IV: The Man Comes Around, and especially its video, received massive airplay and won a shelf-full of awards; as a result, high school kids everywhere were suddenly investing in Cash as an ass-kicking gothic-country grandfather. They ordered shirts depicting a young Johnny giving the camera the bird and amending their hatred for country music with “except for Johnny Cash”.
Not everyone was crazy about “Hurt”, by the way. Many of the old-school Cash fans, the ones who, say, can remember watching The Johnny Cash Show in 1970 didn’t want to see Johnny looking so bad, singing about cutting himself, and pouring wine all over his breakfast. Still, “Hurt” added a major layer to the colossal Johnny Cash mystique and reminded everyone that before Bernie Madoff represented the American archetype, Johnny Cash did — Johnny Cash, the pentecostal hellion, the John Wayne who knew over a thousand songs, the rolling stone both blessed and cursed.
It’s interesting, given the renewed reverence for Cash, which is deserved but still trendy, how irrelevant Cash was perceived just before Rubin got a hold of him. At the start of the ’90s, he was opening the Johnny Cash Theater in Branson, Missouri, next to Mickey Gilley and Yakov Smirnoff, so a revitalized Johnny Cash selling stacks of new records to undergrads looked out of the question. The early ’90s alt-country boom kicked up an interest in classic country, so Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson saw an uptick as well, but don’t forget the role of U2 in getting Cash going again. They tapped him to sing “The Wanderer”, the final tune on their 1993 Zooropa album, a year before Rubin stepped in. The world’s biggest rock band getting a commercially dried-up country music legend to sing lead on an album was utterly unheard of at the time, and it’s an overlooked moment that got this ball rolling.
And the ball rolled on until Cash passed in the fall of 2003, and it continues with Ain’t No Grave, to be released on February 26th, which would have been his 78th birthday. (Wear black.) Since the last two records have been unexpected codas — Cash thought American IV would be his last — the records are brimming with Cash’s meditations on the end of this life and the begging of the next one. It’s impossible to listen to any of the songs without thinking about Johnny knowing that death was imminent. It adds gravity, obviously, to these readings, but such single-focused moroseness, perhaps morbidity, comes close to dragging the album too far down.
“Ain’t No Grave” is a case in point as a song that cuts both ways. It’s given a spooky, windswept backdrop — similar to Highways‘ “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” — with doomsday piano notes and organ washes atop chain-in-a-box percussion, sounding like Jacob Marley is dragging Johnny to his final resting place. The Avett Brothers make a cameo, fresh from working with Rubin on their 2009 album, and thankfully Scott is no virtuouso on the banjo, so his ramshackle rolls fit the song’s world-weary theme. (That’s Seth on the footsteps — cant’ you tell?) As woebegone as the music sounds, Cash has his eye to the great inane, insisting that no earthly prison can keep him from reaching the promised land.
Sheryl Crow’s “Redemption Day”, a buried cut from her 1998 self-titled album, was apparently Cash’s own find, and it’s a perfect fit, as Crow’s lyrics emphasize longtime Cash obsessions like grief, killing, social injustice, and salvation of various kinds. It’s the kind of song, with its minor-key guitar rolls and Johnny’s bone-deep reading, that is utterly transformed in Cash’s hands, as the mournful verses cut hard and the determined verses lift movingly. “Redemption Day” is one of a few songs that make this record truly indispensable for Cash fans (and congrats on a career high for Sheryl Crow).
Included here is also a new take on “For the Good Times”, which works beautifully with its intertwining acoustic guitar arrangement. After hearing Cash stretch himself on U2, Sting, and Soundgarden songs on this series, it’s nice to hear him sing a song so clearly in his wheelhouse. He has, of course, had great success with his friend Kris Kristofferson’s songs in the past (“Sunday Morning Coming Down”, “Why Me”), and Johnny will break your heart on this one, even if it’s a song you’ve heard all of your life. And, again, with Cash dying just four months after this recording, the opening line, “Don’t look so sad/I know it’s over”, may be about the breakup of lovers, but the song takes on a new, poignant meaning.
Another important inclusion is “I Corinthians 15:15”, the last Cash original ever recorded. It is another song about death, this time personified and addressed directly: “Just let me sail into your harbor of lights/And there and forever to cast out my line/Give me my task and let me do it right/ and do it with all of my might”. It’s a gentle hymn that borrows from a lifetime of singing gospel music, and it’s a fitting swan song, characteristic in Cash’s acceptance and unshakable faith at the end.
The album eases up from such dreariness in the nick of time, with a string of folk ballads about a life spent rambling (Tom Paxton’s “Where I’m Bound”), the false promise of wealth (“Satisfied Mind”), and the healing hands of time (“I Don’t Hurt Anymore”). Death is never far away as a topic, but these songs are less conspicuously chosen with Johnny’s fate in mind. Moreover, the tunes are well-known but not overly so — there’s no “Bridge Over Troubled Water” or “In My Life”, songs that never need to be recorded again, but showed up on previous American records. Instead,the songs are familiar but still fresh, like the Western classic “Cool Water”, which gets an unadorned, single-guitar reading that sounds like something from the first American Recordings album. Johnny is forced to get up in his range, and his vibrato quivers dramatically over the bridge for one of Ain’t No Grave‘s most stirring moments.
The album ends with the Hawaiian standard “Aloha Oe”. Alongside a gorgeous resonator guitar, the song’s chorus translates as “Farewell to you… One fond embrace/’ere I depart/Until we meet again”. It’s simply lovely, a replacement of sorts to “We’ll Meet Again”, a song Cash thought was to be his last goodbye back on American IV. Sure, it’s another song about dying, but it’s sweet and peaceful. Rubin has announced that Ain’t No Grave will be the last of these albums, and that’s a good thing. It’s time to leave these alone as the treasure they are without tarnishing them with lesser material. Ain’t No Grave strengthens the overall series and, for that reason, it’s fitting that we end in the spirit that Cash advises in “For the Good Times”: “Let’s just be glad we had some time to spend together”.