Album Review: American VI: Ain’t No Grave by Johnny Cash
In a recent interview, Bob Dylan discredited the music Johnny Cash made towards the end of his life with producer Rick Rubin, calling it ”notorious low-grade stuff.”
For many, these comments couldn’t be further from the truth and border on the offensive. The music Johnny Cash made with Rick Rubin between 1994 and his death in 2003 are some of the most emotional, personal and earnest the country legend made in his nearly 50-year career.
Country fans and non-country fans alike embraced 1994’s American Recordings, which included solo acoustic renditions of songs by the expected (Kris Kristofferson and Jimmy Driftwood) and the unexpected (Nick Lowe, Tom Waits and Glenn Danzig). The album won Cash the highest critical acclaim he had received in decades, topped off by the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album.
Following American Recordings, Cash released more albums with Rick Rubin at the helm – Unchained, American III: Solitary Man and American IV: The Man Comes Around. As the albums went on, so too did Cash’s deteriorating health. He was forced to quit live performance shortly after the release of Unchained and his voice became less boisterous and more strained. What didn’t waver was his determination, and Cash took solace making as much music as possible in the recording studio.
American IV: The Man Comes Around was the last Johnny Cash album to be released during his lifetime. What many of us didn’t realize was that there would be a huge treasure trove of music left to share with fans after his passing. Fitting, then, that the album should close with “We’ll Meet Again.” Cash may no longer be with us, but his music still resonates.
The first posthumous gift from Johnny Cash came in form of Unearthed, a five-disc box set that collected a large number of outtakes from Cash’s recordings during his tenure with Rubin. These are hardly leftover scraps, but rather songs that simply did not fit on any of the released albums. Next came American V: A Hundred Highways, which was released in 2006 and consisted entirely of recordings Cash made after the release of American IV.
We thought that was it, but just as we thought the well of Johnny Cash’s American recordings had been tapped dry, Rubin has overseen the release of American VI: Ain’t No Grave.
Rather than a sequel to American V, American VI should be treated as a companion piece, as the music comes from the same sessions that yielded its predecessor. Nowhere to be found are the unusual sources like Soundgarden, Depeche Mode or Trent Reznor, whose songs had been featured on earlier American albums. Instead, this album sticks mostly to songs that are country through and through. Among the most successful renditions are “For The Good Times,” the last of many Kris Kristofferson songs recorded by Cash, and “Last Night I Had The Strangest Dream,” a hymn to peace composed in the early 1950s by Ed McCurdy.
One of the more unusual song selections comes from Sheryl Crow. Her “Redemption Day” appeared on 1996’s Sheryl Crow and is performed here to great effect.
The album closes with “Aloha Oe,” an age-old Hawaiian folk song that many will recognize. Here it’s performed mostly acoustically with Johnny Cash delivering the Hawaiian and English lyrics in his distinctive baritone. It closes with the line “until we meet again,” closing the circle of farewells that began with American IV: The Man Comes Around. We miss you, Johnny.
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