Review: “American VI: Ain’t No Grave,” Johnny Cash

Many listeners may be put off by the mere existence of American VI: Ain’t No Grave, recorded by Johnny Cash in 2003, as he lived the final months of his life.  When June Carter Cash died in May 2003, Johnny mourned his wife of 35 years by stepping up his recording schedule.  By the time he died a scant four months later, Cash had put enough music in the can to yield the posthumous American V: A Hundred Highways in 2006, and this album, his final one in the American Recordings series with Rick Rubin.

Sure, Cash’s voice breaks down into a wheeze at times and the subject matter may be overly dark – but the ailing singer still had enough snap to know this was going to be his final statement.  Kicking off the album, the title song is as chilling as anything Cash ever recorded – keeping time to a stomping drum and the shaking of a ghostly chain, the singer fights off the Grim Reaper by declaring “ain’t no grave gonna hold my body down.”  Cash’s reading of “Redemption Day” (written by Sheryl Crow) takes on a similar urgency, but this short album isn’t entirely dark.

“For The Good Times,” written by Kris Kristofferson is perhaps the best cut on American VI, and “I Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound” is elegaic without being morbid.  The closing track, and Johnny Cash’s goodbye to this world, is “Aloha Oe.”  Producer Rubin has said this song choice was Cash’s own – if so, even on his death bed Johnny Cash still had a sense of humor.  In fact, the final song somewhat redeems the second half of an album that seems to run out of gas as it progresses.  Still, it’s a fitting final chapter to a legendary career.  Should you get American VI: Ain’t No Grave?  Sure – if only for those first few tunes, which become classics in Johnny Cash’s hands.  You should hear the entire American Recordings series, too.  Don’t wait for the box set.

Listen: “Ain’t No Grave”

Johnny Cash official website

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