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Music Review: Johnny Cash – American VI: Ain’t No Grave

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Johnny Cash died on September 12, 2003, and although producer Rick Rubin stated this album was coming when American V: A Hundred Highways was released in 2006, it's understandable for there to be trepidation among fans. No matter the genre, many music legends after their deaths, Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley, Elvis Presley, and Frank Sinatra to name a few, have had their discographies bloated by record labels emptying the vaults, releasing alternate takes, unreleased tracks, and live performances an artist may not have wanted the public to hear. That's in addition to all the repurpsoed material used in numerous greatest hits and best-of collections that flood the market. Now, not every posthumous release has been a bust because quite a few gems have been unearthed but fans have been burned many times over by this practice.

In this instance, everyone can unburden themselves of that concern because Johnny's legacy is in the capable and trusted hands of producer Rick Rubin and associate producer/son John Carter Cash and is culled from the same sessions that created American V, which found Johnny backed by talented musicians Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench of the Heartbreakers, and guitarists Smokey Hormel, Matt Sweeney, and Johnny Polansky.

The album opens with the title track serving as a counterpoint to the fatalistic "God's Gonna Cut You Down." A foot stomps (Seth Avett), referencing the previous song, and chains clatter during this spiritual as Johnny sings of his eventual ascension, "ain't no grave/ Can hold my body down," and meeting with loved ones that went on ahead. The arrangement includes Scott Avett on banjo and Tench creating some wonderful flourishes.

Although Sheryl Crow's "Redemption Day" was released in 1996, when Johnny sings it in 2003, it seems directed at the war in Iraq as he shows empathy for the troops and disgust at the leaders he mockingly calls "men of great" as he asks them "Was there no oil to excavate/ No riches in trade for the fate/ Of every person who died in hate." Johnny's anti-war stance is brought back into focus on Ed McCurdy's "Last Night I Had The Strangest Dream" about a man who dreamt "the world had all agreed/ To put an end to war." The subject obviously weighed heavy on a man of his age who had seen that path taken too many times.

Kris Kristofferson's "For The Good Times" is a song about the break-up of a relationship ("I know it's over/ But life goes on"), yet when Johnny sings about "the good times," it becomes a love song to his recently departed June Carter.

Johnny's gospel hymn "I Corinthians 15:55" is likely to draw a tear to all those who bonded with the man as he sings of what was his then-impending end. It begins with the first two lines from the Bible passage: "Oh death, where is thy sting? / Oh grave, where is thy victory?" but all is calm as he sounds comforted knowing "hope springs eternal just over the rise/ When I see my redeemer beckoning me."

Folk singer Tom Paxton's "Can't Help But Wonder Where I'm Bound" presents an alternate position as Johnny sounds like he no longer has that security of his certainty. This unknowing causes him a "troubled mind" and is a fitting song for the current upheaval many in the United States feel.

Quick to provide comfort, Johnny sings J.H. Red Hayes & Jack Rhodes' "Satisfied Mind" over an acoustic guitar. He wants to dispel the notion that wealth is the answer to problems because "Money can't buy back/ Your youth when you're old/ Or a friend when you're lonely/ Or a love that's grown cold."

As the album closes and Johnny says goodbye for the last time, he references his previous farewell "We'll Meet Again" from American IV with Queen Liliuokalani's "Aloha Oe" which contains the same line and sentiment. He alternates between English and Hawaiian, evoking the image of sailing off into the sunset.

Ain't No Grave is a satisfying swansong to Johnny's career. Dealing with failing health and the loss of his beloved June in his final days, the listener can hear Johnny made peace with his mortality and attained a level of awareness about life that inspired him to create great art, which should in turn inspire those who come into contact with it.

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About Gordon S. Miller

Gordon S. Miller is the artist formerly known as El Bicho, the nom de plume he used when he first began reviewing movies online for The Masked Movie Snobs in 2003. Before the year was out, he became that site's publisher. Over the years, he has also contributed to a number of other sites as a writer and editor, such as FilmRadar, Film School Rejects, High Def Digest, and Blogcritics. He is the Publisher of Cinema Sentries. Some of his random thoughts can be found at twitter.com/ElBicho_CS
  • Josh Hathaway

    This was already on my “must buy” list this week, El Bicho, but you have reinforced this for me.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/christine-lakatos/ Christine

    I love Johnny Cash, but the “tweet at the top is no working!”

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    really? i see one retweet right now.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/christine-lakatos-/ Christine

    I did a dig, but my tweet didn’t work; had to do it another way….

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    thanks for spreading the word

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Nice review El B. Definitely gonna’ have to get to the CD store tomorrow to get this. I thought American V – A Hundred Highways was pretty amazing…sounds like this one covers a lot of the same ground, and may be just as good.

    -Glen

  • http://marksaleski.com Mark Saleski

    nice review bicho. he’s an article about this record from the boston globe.

    it dispensed with the (wrong) notion that somehow Cash was being taken advantage of in his final days.

    no, this is exactly what he wanted to do.

  • Josh Hathaway

    Cash said he specifically wanted to keep working in the days following June’s passing. He wasn’t being exploited and I strongly doubt John Carter Cash would have signed off on this if he felt it was exploitation. I know other families :: cough :: Hendrix :: cough ::: have done that but I get a sense the Cash family would have been different. I’m eager to hear this record today.

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    I can understand the concern and if a family member raised the issue it might hold water but I think anyone who knows anything about Johnny’s life is likely aware he didn’t do anything he didn’t want to unless June Carter was asking.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    June or Jesus…

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    Jesus was around before June and he didn’t always call the shots

  • latitude38

    iagree!!! SHOW me tHe CASH!!!!

  • Greg Barbrick

    Nice review, you and Boyd have convinced me this one is worth getting.

    Johnny Cash was such an enormous talent, it is so heartening that he was recognized again in his latter days. He spent too long in the wilderness during the 70s and 80s.