American VI: Ain’t No Grave
****1/2 out of five
Johnny Cash, who I’d argue was the single greatest figure in country music history, recorded prolifically – about 60 songs – in the year or so leading up to his death on September 12, 2003; a time marked by the death of his wife, June Carter Cash four months before. A CD from those sessions, American V: A Hundred Highways, released in 2006 revealed a frail, but still utterly compelling artist who knew that time was short and who chose songs that looked back at life and made peace with his God as he anticipated the end.
The songs on American VI: Ain’t No Grave, which producer Rick Rubin says will be the final release from the series of essential albums he made with the legendary artist in the last decade of his life, were recorded during the same period as the previous posthumous release. While Cash is still obviously anticipating the end of his earthly life, he also seems to be looking toward the heavenly journey he anticipates. “Ain’t no grave can hold my body down,” he sings in a powerful version of the traditional spiritual that gives this volume its name. The theme continues in several other songs. “And hope springs eternal just over rise/When I see my Redeemer beckoning me,” he sings in "1 Corinthians 15:55," apparently, the last song he wrote.
The context of Cash singing these songs with weakened voice at life’s end infuses several songs with meaning very different from the songwriters’ original intents. “Don’t look so sad, I know it’s over/But life goes on, and this old world will keep on turning,” from Kris Kristofferson’s "For the Good Times" is no longer just a breakup song, it seems to be Cash preparing us for his death.
In Cash’s hands, the Tom Paxton folk classic "Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound" is not the song of a young person wondering where life’s journey will take him; it’s the song of dying man thinking about what comes next. Similarly, a cowboy’s search for a watering hole in Bob Nolan’s "Cool Water," seems to become, in this version, a metaphor for a man’s dream of his heavenly reward.
Taken as a whole, the six American albums, and the Cash Unearthed boxed set, recorded between 1993 and 2003 represent an essential period in Cash’s almost half-century career. American VI: Ain’t No Grave is an intimate, poignant farewell from a great artist.