If I'm to be one hundred percent honest here, then I'd have to admit I haven't always been the biggest Johnny Cash fan. Growing up as a teenager, my tastes tended to run a lot more towards Led Zeppelin and Alice Cooper than Live At Folsom Prison or "A Boy Named Sue."
But even as I came to appreciate the Man In Black in my later years, I also have to admit that I wasn't always that wild about the whole American Recordings series — or at least the concept behind it.
Initially the idea of rock/rap wunderkind Rick Rubin producing a series of albums where Cash — backed by Rubin cronies such as members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers — would be doing songs by people like Soundgarden, Danzig & Nine Inch Nails struck me as the worst kind of record company pandering for commercial gain.
Fortunately, Rick Rubin is a much smarter man than I am, and he has obviously long since proved my initial jitters about the American series dead wrong. Still, although I liked much of what I heard on the early American Recordings albums — stuff like "Delia's Gone," for example — it wasn't until the fourth album in the series that, to borrow a piece from its title, I finally came around.
What I saw for the first time on The Man Comes Around was how Rubin's stripped-down production really allowed Cash to lay his artistic soul bare like he hadn't done in decades. Nowhere was this more apparent than on Cash's unforgettable version of Trent Reznor's "Hurt," which the Man In Black transformed into a heart-wrenching statement on mortality. It was also here that a more careful listen began to reveal a more real sense of the deeper bond that existed between Cash and Rubin during his final years. The arrangement was as much a personal one as it was professional.
I'm not sure if American VI: Ain't No Grave will prove to be the final entry in Cash's American series or not (to be honest, I thought they were done with 2006's A Hundred Highways). But what I am sure of is that on this album, even with Cash gone, Rubin more than holds up his end of that bargain.