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Monday, March 1, 2010

Johnny Cash

American VI: Ain’t No Grave (American Recordings/Lost Highway)

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Music producer Rick Rubin doesn’t read music or write lyrics. But he feels things deeply. And when you seamlessly weave his gift of intuition with a spiritual yet complicated artist like the late Johnny Cash, one thing is created: an overwhelmingly beautiful and sensitive album.

American VI: Ain’t No Grave is the sixth and final work in the duo’s American Recordings series. This 10-track, nearly 40-minute disc is full of honesty and contradictions from a man who was merciful as well as flawed. Cash and Rubin worked on many songs together during the American Recordings sessions up until Cash's death in 2003. 

In addition to Rubin's masterful insight and production, many different artists contribute to the record, including John Carter Cash, who acts as associate producer. The lyrical, storybook tales deal with heartache, frustration, love and connections and include covers of songs from impeccable songwriters such as Tom Paxton, Kris Kristofferson, Bob Nolan, Sheryl Crow and many others.

With the title track, “Ain’t No Grave,” the listener is introduced to a traditional song, handed down from generations—an addition perhaps influenced by Cash’s childhood picking cotton in the fields of Arkansas. With some help from Scott and Seth Avett on banjo and footsteps, Cash croons the people’s lyrics with strength and certainty without a trace of ashes in the urn: “When I hear that trumpet sound/I’m gonna get up out of the ground/Well there ain’t no grave/Gonna hold my body down.”

In Sheryl Crow’s “Redemption Day,” Cash’s deep baritone vocals etch into the soul and are wrapped around by pungent yet slight harpsichord strings and banjo plucks. His nails scratch emotional wounds with a firm grasp, and release with powerful acceptance and compassion: “I’ve wept for those who suffer long/But how I weep for those who’ve gone.”

A treasure on the album, an original written by Cash over the last three years of his life, “I Corinthians 15.55,” comforts us in uncertain times with gentle, detailed lyrics: “Oh life, you are a shining path/And hope springs eternal just over the rise/When I see my redeemer beckoning me.”

Nearly seven years after his death, this is his last walk with Rubin. Cash leaves us at the end of his trail with a message of vision and unshakable faith.


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