When Rick Rubin took his place at the end of the long line of producers Johnny Cash had argued with over the years, the closing chapter of America’s most widely embraced country musician had already been written. Sixteen years later and now over six years after his death, American VI: Ain’t No Grave promises to be the last in the string of American releases that most assumed ended with the first posthumous release, American V: A Hundred Highways.
The feel of VI is unsurprisingly consistent with the American series—Cash and a guitar, with extremely sparse arranging beyond that. A few cuts have a little more than usual; it’s certainly the case for the title track, which is by far the strongest cut here (and the album’s opener). But as A Hundred Highways’ great mystery is the strength in Cash’s voice in his last year—never losing the character that illustrated his long and twisted life in a few sung phrases—Ain’t No Grave reveals even more chinks in the Man In Black’s armor. And it may be the mortal subject matter of the title track or the posthumous adjective or Rubin’s more liberal use of strings, but the waltzing lullaby of “I Corinthians 15:55”—the only song by him penned by him here—would have little effect without Cash’s voice.
It’s closer to A Hundred Highways than When The Man Comes Around in “star power” regarding the creators of the covers chosen. The haunting version of Sheryl Crow’s “Redemption Day” is perhaps the most mainstream cut, though there is the well-covered “Cool Water” by Bob Nolan and “For The Good Times” by Kris Kristofferson. The album ends curiously with Queen Lili’uokalani’s “Aloha Oe,” an escapist farewell cut that could be easily overdubbed onto the end of Dr. Strangelove if it didn’t so require an umbrella in a drink. Of course, Cash’s rendition gives it more gravity—as his interpretations always do—but that tropical quality is retained.
There’s truly nothing to criticize about Cash’s “last” work (they’ll dig up something—they always do) in the traditional sense. In an increasingly secular and skeptical America, Johnny Cash is a religious figure revered by the Greatest Generation through the agnostic Generation Y; a man whose belief and faith alone seemed strong enough to stay the four horsemen from the rest of us.
In A Word: Spiritual