"Ain't no grave gonna hold my body down"
Judging by the first single from Johnny Cash’s second, and final, posthumous release for Rick Rubin’s American label, the man was a master of song until the end. Staring death in the eyes, Cash’s voice sounds incredibly strong considering the facts that surround the recording. Through a gospel stomp, a banjo, and the rattle of chains, “Ain’t No Grave” is transformed from a traditional standard into a highly personalized message that no grave can hold a man down from Jesus Christ. Cash sounds weary and wavering, but his soul comes through without a hint of fear. At times the song is very hard to grasp, like a long lost note from someone long gone.
Cash began his long relationship with Rick Rubin in 1994, with the stripped down, bare bones American Recordings. The Grammy-winning album breathed new life into Cash’s career, and he followed with 1996’s Unchained. Backed by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, this second album with Rubin was perhaps the most fully realized work of Johnny Cash’s career. Solitary Man and The Man Comes Around take the artist’s work toward a more reflective turn. These were recorded after the realization of Shy-Drager syndrome and a particularly damaging case of pneumonia. After June Carter Cash died in 2003, Cash continued to record for the four months that remained here. His first posthumous release, 2006’s A Hundred Highways, and what will be his last, Ain’t No Grave, were both collected from these last recording sessions as the artist dealt with his pain and loss through his art.
Heart wrenching and sad, but at the same time uplifting, the tone of Ain’t No Grave will probably not differ from A Hundred Highways. They are among the most important testaments to the art of song. It is the sound of a man bearing his soul and dealing with his heart, and giving it everything he’s got to give. Ain’t No Grave will be released February 26, 2010, the day that would have been Cash’s 78th birthday.