American VI:Ain't No Grave
Artist: Johnny Cash
Label: American/Lost Highway
The cover picture of Johnny Cash as a boy here is precious! Looking like a hell-raising little imp with a turd-eating grin, it almost telegraphs the Cash known for his infamous squinty-faced picture of him flipping the bird over his guitar, probably during his pill-addled years of kicking booty and taking names during his years addled on pills. I.e., Johnny Cash, one bad muthahfuggah.
Contrast that shot with Cash in profile in the middle panel of the cardboard packaging-I usually hate this kind of CD case, but it works here-of this, his final batch of songs in his late-career renaissance with producer Rick Rubin. In grainy focus, trepidation and peace on his face, like a spectre awaiting the sweet release from earthly life adn reunion with his then-recently departed wife, much less half of his bandmates in the famed Million Dollar Quartet (Elvis Preseley and Carl Perkins;Jerry Lee Lewis, with a cockroach's tenacity, lives on as of this writing).
The photos, including those in the strange accompanying booklet, telegraph the contents of American VI:Ain't No Grave. It's the sound of a man who has had sown his wild oats, met and accepted his Maker's invitation to redemption and sounds to have been working out his salvation ever since.
Rubin backs Cash with a surfeit of electric and acoustic guitars ogf varying textures, organ and, on the public domain titular tune made famous by Brother Claude Ely in the '50s, banjos and footstomps. The producer with the big beard&belly and Buddhist bent has led The Man In Black through all sorts of paces throughout their seven albums together (counting an all-gospel collection, but not the box set). Here, they land an excercise in drumless chamber folk music emphasizing Cash's voice in all its slightly enfeebled, nonetheless resonant baritone croak.
Because it might be reasonably assumed that the listener knows Cash and his history, the creaks and croaks in his voice add gravitas to the songs. And, if the presumptions that come with listening to a Cash album at this point connote an autobiographical tone to his work, Cash sounds to hvae been working things out with the Lord uin fear and trembling throughout much of this set.
Ely's "Ain't No Grave" is a joyously ramshackle romp. Cash's? Foreboding, with a the joy as a subtext, perhaps one of vengeance. The feeling continues on what may be Sheryl Crow's most scripturally astute song, "Reedemption Day." His original "I Corinthians 15:55" finds him in a sing-song melody that might be perfect for a kiddie Bible class...if all the yong'uns present have already been touched by a relative going to heaven.
For all the assurance he voices in that last song, he sounds almost too comfy on folkie Tom Paxton's "Can't Help But Wopnder Where I'm Going." Go figure that he follows that with a spin on Porter Waggoner's anti-materialism hit, "Satisfied Mind."
Elsewhere, what seems as if Cash's take on his impending mortality takes a more meyaphoraical cast. Remakes of Hank Snow's oldie "I Don't Hurt Anymore" and Ray Price's "For The Good Times" bring romance into the quest for acquiescence and comfort. He sounds palpably thirsty for the streams of eternal life on The Sons of the Pioneers' Western chestnut "Cool Water."
"Last Night I Had The Strangest Dream" finds Cash singing about an end to all war, and though one might think him to have been familiar enough with Christ's words to know that's not going to happen until His earthly return, the song's mix of haunting and hope sell it. Conclusing the set is the Hawaiian standard "Aloha Oe," an odd fit, but hearing Cash lift his voice to a lighter lilt after so much heaviness has its charm.
A perfect way to end the fruitful, revelatory Cash/Rubin relationship? Mighty close. If there's anything else by them remaining in the vault, there's a pretty high water mark to match here.
Jamie Lee Rake