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.
Although at just about 32 minutes playing time the album is a tad short by modern standards, not a minute here is wasted; there's nothing resembling filler. In fact, there's not a single track on Ain't No Grave that doesn't absolutely belong on the album. With Cash's family — most notably his son, John Carter Cash (who serves as associate producer) — signing off on the project, Ain't No Grave is about as far a cry from the posthumous grave-robbing associated with the work of certain other deceased musicians as you could possibly get.
Like it's predecessor, A Hundred Highways, this album focuses on themes of death, mortality and redemption. These are, after all, albums Cash recorded during a time when he was surrounded on all sides by such things — both with the recent loss of his beloved June, and in the sure knowledge of his own impending mortality.
But where the songs on A Hundred Highways had more of a bittersweet undercurrent running through them, the approach here is a much more direct one. It's one thing to lend a new and different meaning to a Springsteen lyric like "I'll meet you further up on the road" or Gordon Lightfoot's "If you could read my mind, what a tale my thoughts could tell." It's quite another to hammer the point home in lines like "Ain't no grave gonna hold me down" and "Hope springs eternal just over the rise, when I see my Redeemer beckoning me."
If there is a common thread running through the songs on Ain't No Grave, it is not only the knowledge that his own journey has come to an end, but in the surer comfort of knowing what comes next as provided by his own faith. You can hear it in the title track when Cash sings, "When I hear that trumpet sound, I'm gonna' rise right up outta the ground." On this track, the foot stomps and banjo flourishes of the Avett Brothers provide a backdrop reminiscent of "God's Gonna Cut You Down," another great song from A Hundred Highways dealing with much the same subject matter.
Even on Sheryl Crow's "Redemption Day," the emphasis is not so much on the antiwar sentiments of Crow's lyrics — although they are very much still present — as it is on the spiritual longings found in the refrain, "There is a train that's heading straight up to Heaven's gate."
On his lone self-penned contribution to this album, "1 Corinthians 15:55," Cash sings the scripture, "O' Death, Where Is Thy Victory," like he means it. But you can also hear in his voice a joyful yearning of "when I see my Redeemer beckoning me." Cash's voice here may not be that of the same strong young man who sang about how he "fell into a ring of fire." But in it, there is also no mistaking the inner peace he'd found.
Even so, there is sadness in that voice as well. When Cash sings, "Don't look so sad, I know it's over," from Kris Kristofferson's "For The Good Times," you could well find yourself reaching for a nearby hanky. I know I did. Although some have questioned the choice of closing the album with "Aloha Oe," I also found this to be one of the more poignant things about Ain't No Grave.
Like so many of the other lyrics Cash gave new meaning to on his final recordings with Rubin, there's just something perfect and again, poignant, about closing this album with the words "until we meet again."