Johnny Cash: American VI: Ain’t No Grave

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American VI: Ain’t No Grave
Johnny Cash (American Records, 2010)

As the world knows from the bio-pic Walk the Line (20th Century Fox), Johnny Cash was no one’s idea of a role model. He cheated on his first wife, raged at the people who loved him, and drove himself crazy with drugs and alcohol.

But here, in his last recorded work, Cash provides a living lesson on how a Christian man should face the end of his days. Ain’t No Grave, recorded in 2003, is the final posthumous installment of the bare-bones, rootsy American recordings that Cash made with producer Rick Rubin. Here the singer, who had just lost his wife, June Carter Cash, faces grief, physical decline, and the palpable shadow of death, and he stares them down with heart-wrenching grace.

Even on his worst days no one could question Cash’s stubborn integrity. He didn’t even try to hide his adultery. And his devotion to his art was absolute and unshakable. He came out of Dyess, Arkansas with that hardscrabble sound in his head, and it was up to the world to figure out a place for it.

In 1955 Cash’s vast repertoire of folk, country, gospel, and blues was just American music. In his late middle age, things got more complicated. When Rubin found him in 1993, Cash had been dropped by his record company and was reduced to working an Ozark tourist trap. But Rubin, who produces rock and rap artists, suspected that the children of gangsta and grunge might be ready for an original. He put Cash in a room with a guitar, and the rest was history.

Volume VI of the Rubin-Cash collaboration is a conscious summing up. Almost every song refers to death, obvious in the title track, but also in the ’60s folk classics “Where I’m Bound” and “Satisfied Mind.” Even “For the Good Times,” about the end of an affair, is profound when sung by the recently widowed Cash.

Until there’s a statue of him somewhere, this album will serve as a fitting capstone on Cash’s great American life.