American VI: Ain’t No Grave will be the final volume of Johnny Cash‘s acclaimed American Recordings series and the second released since Cash’s passing in late 2003. Posthumous records of new material often raise certain reservations among listeners. We are left to wonder how great a hand the artist truly had in the recording process and to what degree his or her vision for the record was actually realized. Fortunately, producer Rick Rubin, who Cash entrusted the last decade of his career to, and long-time collaborators David Ferguson, Mike Campbell, and Benmont Tench have taken painstaking care to faithfully preserve and safeguard these final recordings by The Man in Black.
This volume’s ten tracks were selected from the same sessions that yielded 2006’s American V: A Hundred Highways. In 2002, Cash, worried that American IV would be his final record, began recording new material at a feverish pace. Rubin explains, “Every morning, when he’d wake up, he would call the engineer and tell him if he was physically up to working that day.” These sessions kept Cash going as he grieved the loss of his wife, June Carter Cash, who passed in May of 2003, and they continued to sustain him right up until his final days. In the truest sense, this record captures the last words of Johnny Cash the performer.
Like the other releases in the American Recordings series, the bulk of American VI consists of Cash’s stripped-down take on the songs of others, though nothing here is as unexpected or startling as previous covers like “Hurt” (Nine Inch Nails), “Personal Jesus” (Depeche Mode), or “Rusty Cage” (Soundgarden). Cash doesn’t stray far from his singer-songwriter roots in his selection of material, and the result is a group of poignant songs steeped in regret, reflection, and redemption.
“Ain’t No Grave” begins American VI with a defiant tone and a pounding reminiscent of 2006’s “God’s Gonna Cut You Down”. Against a backdrop of stomps, sweeps, and chains, Cash boldly proclaims that nothing will keep him from his final destination: “Meet me, Jesus, meet me/Meet me in the middle of the air/And if these wings don’t fail me/I will meet you anywhere/Ain’t no grave can hold my body down.” Sheryl Crow’s “Redemption Day” follows with a similar air of urgency-that of a man who has a message to deliver and little time remaining to do so. Cash’s voice is grim and forboding, but alongside Tench’s organ during the choruses there seems to be the hope of some form of salvation as Cash sings, “There is a train that’s heading straight to Heaven’s gate.” In Cash’s hands, Crow’s politicized song about national redemption manages to speak more about personal redemption, and this type of metamorphosis is a ubiquitous quality of American VI. These “death bed” songs, regardless of their intended meaning or content, become deeply personal songs, imbued with whatever sentiment Cash’s voice manifests.
While the opening tracks carry a firm and absolute outlook, Cash is at his best on American VI when he is less certain and reflecting on where he has been and where he will be going. The definitive gem of this volume is Cash’s rendering of “For The Good Times”, a breakup song written by his close friend and fellow-Highwayman Kris Kristofferson. It’s performances like this one-rare and perfect marriages of voice, words, and melody-that make the American Recordings essential listening. Simultaneously, Cash is able to summon feelings of tenderness, gratefulness, and regret in his voice, and when he sings, “Hear the whisper of the raindrops blowing soft against the window/And make believe you love me one more time/For the good times,” the listener can feel those emotions at odds with one another in all the complexity of a true relationship in its last moments. On the other end of the spectrum is “Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound”, a Tom Paxton song that, as its title suggests, looks towards what may await further down the road. Cash’s voice rolls gently along with guitar and piano accompaniment, which, in a way, echoes the wandering nature of the song’s protagonist, who travels and ponders what the future may hold for him, or in Cash’s case, where he might be bound in the next life.
Throughout the American Recordings, Cash has sprinkled in his own songs among the covers. “I Corinthians 15:55” is the lone Cash original to appear on American VI. Written over the last three years of his life, this song is structured around the biblical verse “O death, where is thy sting/O grave, where is thy victory?” This verse, which comments on faith’s eventual triumph over death, perhaps provides some insight regarding Cash’s mindset as his health grew worse near the end. The track itself is the most spare arrangement on the record, and Cash performs it as if he was leading a hymn in a town church on Sunday morning.
The primary criticism of American VI has to be how front-loaded this record is. All of the aforementioned tracks-the highlights of this record-comprise the first half. If I had this record on vinyl, I might never flip to side two. That’s not to say the back half of American VI isn’t without merit. Cash delivers serviceable versions of Ed McCurdy’s anti-war “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream”, Bob Nolan’s “Cool Water”, and “Aloha Oe”, which fittingly translates to “farewell to you”; however, none of these tracks are anywhere near as compelling or affecting as the record’s earlier songs. Is it simply a matter of sequencing? Probably not. Did Cash just run out of time to record what would have better completed this record? Only Rick Rubin and those with access to whatever additional Cash material exists know the answer to that question.
American VI is a bit of a tease. It begins with such promise and, by comparison, ends on such an aesthetic down note. However, it would be foolish to dwell on the album’s shortcomings when its best moments shine so brightly. In Cash’s final days, he still managed to do what he was brought into this world to do and recorded several songs that will live on with listeners for a very long time. In that respect, this record is a fitting, even if imperfect, way to close the book on the American Recordings, a final gift to us all from The Man in Black.