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.