It is perhaps fitting that American Recordings waited until the seventy-eighth
anniversary of Johnny Cash's birth to release this, the last
recordings that producer Rick Rubin says that he has of the
late great man in black. Ain't No Grave is a fitting epitaph
to the man who is possibly one of the most influential and revered
figures in country music, and also in rock and roll. This last installment
of the American series is rich in darkness and the songs are all a
bit somber, but this is perhaps the most powerful of all the records
in the series.
The album starts with Johnny cutting through a thickly padded "Ain't
No Grave", transforming the spiritual almost into a death knell.
Cash's voice is strong and clear, standing in contrast to most of
the rest of the record where the man's voice takes on a fragility
that pains the heart of the listener, drawing the soul ever closer
to the man who would take with him so much of the world's meaning.
When Cash tackles the Kristofferson classic "For The Good
Times", there is a tenderness and frailty that speaks volumes
about the man's condition, and the words of the song seem to twist
with an entirely new meaning in his voice. Cash sings his own "I
Corinthians 15:55" with a strength and conviction that reinforce
the beliefs that the man had held onto for so long in his life, beliefs
that carried him through life's trials and tribulations. "Cool
Water" finds Cash's voice clear and strong, hinting at its former
power, accompanied simply by a wonderfully picked acoustic guitar.
"Last Night I Had The Strangest Dream" once more finds Johnny
singing somewhat feebly, his age and weakness showing clearly through,
his heart on his sleeve and the subtle power in his voice very different
from most of the rest of the record. As he sings of peace on Earth
and the end of war there is a divine hope that is carried on the wings
of the song, one that his soul embraces fully, even now that he's
left the world. The final track on Ain't No Grave is a more
than fitting end than anyone could have imagined, as Cash lets loose
on "Aloha Oe", a simple and old song of greeting and farewell
from the Hawaiian Islands. The message is clear, and could not have
been clearer had he put the album together himself
now, dear friend, we will see you again.
If your life has been touched by the music of the man in black, like
so many lives on this planet have been, then American VI: Ain't
No Grave is a necessary album to own. The songs are well-chosen,
each one showing a facet of Johnny's personality and vision of the
world. Each song is also a tribute to the man and his voice and his
indelible spirit. It is difficult to listen without shedding tears
for what the world has lost with his passing, but there is also hope
to be found in his aspiration toward a higher and more meaningful
purpose. The man was always a beacon of Christian faith, some of his
earliest and finest recordings being those of faith and the gospel,
and this record may help to push many back into the fold, or at the
very least, to reconsider their place on this earth. Regardless of
your spiritual beliefs, the music presented here is full of a deep
humanity that transcends mere popular music, reaching far into the
soul of the human spirit itself, searching for truth and peace and
sheltering the world in its own wonderful knowledge.
Goodbye for now, dear friend. Until we see you again.
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