American VI: Ain’t No Grave
“There ain’t no grave/ That can hold my body down.” Those are the first words that you hear from Johnny Cash on his final album American VI: Ain’t No Grave. His voice is weathered, but it just adds to the intimacy of these covers.
Cash told producer Rick Rubin that after his wife June Carter Cash died, “Recording [is] the main reason for being alive.” According to Rubin, Cash feared that American IV: The Man Comes Around would be his last release, so Rubin suggested immediately writing and recording new material. He made sure that there were an engineer and guitar players always on call.
Cash’s health was deteriorating pretty rapidly and he was in and out of the hospital a lot. Rubin said, however, that “he knew he was going to die, he was calm and matter of fact about it, and… that was it.”
It shows in this album. From the chain gang sound of the opening title track to the cover of Queen Liliuokalani’s “Alohe Oe,” Cash puts his signature on these ten tracks.
Each song is extremely intimate, usually with just Cash and an acoustic guitar, but the one song that moved me to tears was, ironically, his cover of Sheryl Crow’s “Redemption Day.” Hearing The Man in Black sing “There is a train that’s heading straight/ To heaven’s gate, to heaven’s gate/ And on the way, child and man/ And woman wait, watch and wait for redemption day” is like hearing an angel of mercy foreshadowing the Earth’s eventual demise. It is truly one of the most haunting songs I have ever heard.
“I Corinthians 15:55” brings him back to his mother’s hymnbook and this verse seems custom made for Cash as it starts out with “Oh death, where is thy sting? Oh grave, where is thy victory? Oh life, you are a shining path/ And hope springs eternal just over the rise/ When I see my redeemer beckoning me.”
Deeply personal and spiritual, American VI: Ain’t No Grave is Johnny Cash’s haunting farewell. While Rubin never did get Cash to do the one song he practically begged him to do, Radiohead’s “Creep,” he did capture Cash at a time when he should have been enjoying retirement. Instead, Cash made some of the best recordings of his career. And this icon will forever be missed.
American Records: www.americanrecordings.com