The Man, The Myth, The Legend. This was the troubadour in black's last full studio album and oh what a beautifully subtle, elegiac thing it is. American VI: Ain't No Grave, the final chapter in the storied, twilight of his life American Recordings series delivers Johnny Cash’s strident farewell in an unshakably peaceful and endearing fashion. When talking about JC one can’t avoid speaking in a rush of superlatives but that’s just what extraordinary people deserve. But, let us instead talk about the gorgeous music found on this triumphant disc.
Produced again by Rick Rubin this touching farewell charts a brief yet deeply moving document of Cash’s acceptance of his mortality and is drenched in spirituality and release. The stirring and capably defiant lead track “Ain’t No Grave” opens the album with its haunting yet inspiring clatter of dragging chains, biblical imagery and ringing Appalachian sounds.
Even though he sounds as ready to meet his maker as ever before, Cash still manages to relay that spitfire sensibility that has made him the luminary he is. To hear the words “ain’t no grave can hold my body down” spring from his cracked but still vital voice is simply bone chilling. Yet where songs such as the Nine Inch Nails cover “Hurt” were almost too sad to handle, this one makes one want to stand proud and head out to face the world with head held high, dignity fully intact. On this track, Mr. Cash definitely sounds like the toughest 70-something you’ve ever heard.
The formula here is familiar as songs from other writers are covered with the exception of the lone Cash penned original “I Corinthians 15:55” which is a simple, intimate depiction of a man ready to join his Redeemer in the afterlife. Other standouts include “Redemption Day” from Sheryl Crow with its continuing meditations on death and “Satisfied Mind” where the Man in Black preaches the age-old notion that inner peace provides the most lasting riches by far….and you BELIEVE him.
For an album with obvious indications, Cash sounds incredibly tender, which runs counterpoint to the overwhelming idea that the man who sang these songs is now gone. There is not a single artist in the music canon that acts as more of a link from generation to generation than he. It would be easy to imagine listening to these hymn-like tunes with my late Great Grandparents sipping lemonade in the summer sun and reminiscing about times shared together and moments forever etched on our minds.
It’s even difficult to fathom that this will be the last Johnny Cash studio album to be reviewed. Just as much as this album touts acceptance, faith and peace of mind, it also reminds us to be thankful and, most importantly to live the best life we can possibly piece together. As he croons in the song “For The Good Times” (written by comrade Kris Kristofferson), “don’t be sad, let’s just be thankful for this time together.” We were Mr. Cash, oh were we ever.