Gone But Not Forgotten
Johnny Cash would have been 78-years-old on February 26, 2010. To celebrate the anniversary of the country icon’s birth, producer Rick Rubin has released American VI: Ain’t No Grave, the second posthumous album of songs culled from their collaboration during the last year or so of Cash’s life.
Longtime fans will be delighted and newcomers will be pleasantly surprised. Cash’s baritone had clearly lost its boom, but that only adds poignancy to these ten tracks dominated by themes of loss, finality, and death. Mike Campbell (guitar) and Benmont Tench (keyboards) of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers provide sparse accompaniment throughout, with occasional help from guests, but Cash is the focus.
The title track opens the album with a bold, unsettling statement of Cash’s faith. “When I hear that trumpet sound / I’m gonna rise right out of the ground,” he declares with conviction. The remainder of the cuts lean heavily on old country and folk songs like “Cool Water” and “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream,” but familiarity doesn’t lessen their impact. Cash nails Kris Kristofferson’s goodbye to a lover, “For the Good Times,” transforming it into a valediction to family, friends, and fans. “Let’s just be glad we had some time to spend together,” he sings.
Cash is similarly affecting on “A Satisfied Mind,” by Red Hayes and Jack Rhodes. The lyrics convey a hard-won, tough-minded perspective on money’s true value without glorifying poverty or reviling wealth. Porter Wagoner and Gram Parsons sang it too, but Cash’s gift is making listeners believe he’s really been there, just like them.
Tom Paxton’s “Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound” provides the album’s biggest surprise. The musicians approach the song as if it were the kind of folk-lite you might hear in a musical segment on “A Prairie Home Companion,” but Cash recognizes the darker element of this song about a rambling man. “Nail your shoes to the kitchen floor / Lace ’em up and bar the door,” he warns square Johns who view his life wistfully.
Despite the album’s evident sadness, a genuine sweetness emerges after repeated listens; all in all, this is an unexpected gift from Cash to music lovers.