In the months leading up to his death in September 2003, ailing country icon Johnny Cash recorded the final album of his acclaimed Rick Rubin-produced American Recordings series. Medleyville’s George Henn and Mike Madden have the lowdown on The Man in Black’s last effort, American VI: Ain’t No Grave, which is due Feb. 23 — three days before what would have been Cash’s 78th birthday.
George Henn: Johnny Cash‘s second posthumous collection of new recordings — much like its predecessor, 2006’s American V: A Hundred Highways — is heavy on themes of faith and mortality, and again there is an all-too-palpable sense of resignation on the singer’s part that death is near. In actuality, it was, as Cash cut these songs (and those on the previous album) mere months before his passing.
In listening to American VI: Ain’t No Grave, however, it is even harder this time to shake the idea that it is in many ways a glimpse into Cash’s final days and that his legendary baritone would soon be silenced. He somehow sounds more weathered and weary, even short of breath at some points. Perhaps it’s just that these are just inferior vocal takes as compared to the tracks that made up A Hundred Highways, but Cash’s voice has never sounded so frail, and at many moments here I’d imagine his audience will suffer right along with him.
Mike Madden: After the first listen, the impression is clear that producer Rick Rubin intended to use these as the final set of songs. Not only are the vocals weathered but the actual tracks are very sparse. The American Recordings series is largely acoustic-based, and this final volume brings the series full circle by harkening back to 1994’s Vol. I, which was a collection of songs that were not hits for other artists, and the recordings featured bare-bones instrumentation. However, when there is some percussion featured, it’s done to complement the musical theme, as in the rattling and dragging chains on the album’s first track, “Ain’t No Grave (Gonna Hold This Body Down).”
Henn: True, the sparseness of the arrangements puts Cash’s voice out front, for better or worse. His vocals are so feeble on that opening track that it doesn’t quite end up as the song of defiance it was intended to be. Later, on his version of old buddy Kris Kristofferson‘s staple “For the Good Times,” Cash’s weakened voice is actually an asset in a sense, as it helps transform the song; it sure sounds like Cash is reflecting on his life, rather than a relationship ending. Again, maybe I’m reading too much into the circumstances of Cash’s life and health when it comes to the songs he selected for his final recording sessions, but that’s my basic point: How can one not let that thinking enter the picture when listening to this album?
Madden: And that is exactly what’s wrong with this final chapter. Did it need to be done? I say no because now it’s bordering on exploitation. There will a lot of attention paid to the album and for all the wrong reasons. The uneducated listener who may have discovered Cash’s classics after seeing the movie Walk the Line may give this a listen, thinking that this is some lost classics album, and get the absolute wrong impression of Cash’s music. The Johnny Cash historians, although they know the full story, will no doubt agree that this should have been left off the discography, not for lack of history but just because it’s better left unreleased.
Henn: I have to agree, as I don’t see what this disc accomplishes that the previous one didn’t, although I’d be remiss not to mention the one real intriguing twist at the album’s end: Cash, knowing he lacks the pipes to do such a melodic number justice, tackles the famous Hawaiian standard “Aloha Oe” anyway. On the final track of what is being billed as — finally — his last album, Cash, playing the outlaw to the end, is saying “Aloha,” or goodbye, with all his limitations laid bare in that vocal.
That highlight aside, American VI is decent enough but unnecessary; American V was a fitting enough send-off and had already expressed the idea that Cash was at peace with his life and times and, drawing upon his deep Christian faith, looking forward to a place in heaven. If there indeed “ain’t no grave” to hold Cash’s body down, here’s hoping that, as we approach the seventh anniversary of his death, someone or something will at least hold his catalog output down.
Madden: Absolutely true. The album isn’t a bad effort, and I even feel there is historical significance in doing a posthumous album. However, you’re not converting anyone with this one. That said, if you are a Cash fan, this is worthy of a listen or two, if for nothing but the historical aspects (and to hear “Aloha Oe”). Johnny Cash has left an extremely prolific body of work behind, and now that we’ve dug out the crates, let him remain the icon that he is, not the running gag that can result from too much afterlife activity.