Johnny Cash defiant to the very end.
`American VI: Ain't No Grave'
Johnny Cash (American Recordings/Lost Highway)
* * *-1/2
On the verge of the greatest journey of his life, Johnny Cash was working on songs for his fans to treasure long after his death.
Cash, who died Sept. 12, 2003, began working on his last two "American" collections after finishing 2002's "American IV: The Man Comes Around." Doing what he does best, Cash recorded songs even after his wife, June Carter Cash, died in May 2003, and he continued right up to his own death. The posthumous "American V: A Hundred Highways" (released in 2006) and "American VI: Ain't No Grave" (released last month on the day that would have been Cash's 78th birthday) concludes the soul searching from one of America's great musical spirits. And from the sound of it, Cash and the Grim Reaper duked it out to the bitter end. While Death might have taken the singer's life, he didn't take Cash's soul. In fact, Cash reigned triumphant as the ultimate Man in Black, and his latest is testament to that.
Even with his best singing days far behind him, Cash's world-weary, weather-beaten voice still had plenty of gusto and heart. And even without knowing his rich story, one can easily get the sense that Cash is a man who loved greatly, suffered great losses, and lied and cheated a great deal. You are convinced that the Man in Black is drawing from the personal hells he has endured in his rich but less than virtuous life. With a sinner-saint authority that conveyed both honesty and strength, Cash always walked the line between damnation and redemption in his music.
"American VI: Ain't No Grave" is Cash's sixth and final collaboration with rock producer Rick Rubin, who helped re-establish the legendary artist as a vital force and go through a creative rebirth of epic proportions, starting the comeback with 1994's stark, bare-bones solo triumph, "American Recordings." Cash chastises Gabriel the Archangel not to blow his trumpet until he hears from him first on the title track, "Ain't No Grave." Despite his ailing health, Cash is not going to slip off this mortal coil until he's good and ready. Shrouded in a dark and ominous mix of rattling chains, creaky guitars, plucking banjo and a tolling bell, Cash urgently croons, "Well there ain't no grave/Gonna hold my body down."
A grief-stricken Cash weeps for those who are suffering and those who are dead and gone on Sheryl Crow's peacenik protest song, "Redemption Day." With a well-earned, elder-statesman authority, Cash advises world leaders that social injustice must end. With Cash's bare-bones reading and stripped-down accompaniment of sparse guitar, pump organ and piano, the song becomes an intimate and inspirational cry for freedom.
While Kris Kristofferson's "For the Good Times" is about the end of a romance, Cash, in the fragile, final stage of his life, transforms the meaning of the song to be about the end of one's existence. Counting his blessings rather than cursing his ailing condition, Cash passionately belts (that is, as much as his frail pipes could belt in his final days) the beautiful, bittersweet chorus and concludes there will be time enough for sadness when you leave.
The album's sole Cash original, "I Corinthians 15:15," is a keeper. Finding solace in Scripture and the sound of a strumming guitar, Cash prays to the Almighty up above for his ship to sail friendly seas, until he is ready to dock in God's "harbor of light" and become one of heaven's shiny stars. Cash delivers the inspirational sermon, "Oh death, where is thy sting?/Oh grave, where is thy victory?" His voice is shot to hell, but his faith is unwavering and resonates with urgency. Here, Cash is a man who lived a full life, a failed life, but is thankful for all of it.
Cash turns Tom Paxton's sturdy trucker song "Can't Help But Wonder Where I'm Bound" into a poetic evaluation of a man's worth. With nothing to show for his vagabond existence, Cash gives this solid advice to anyone who romanticizes the life of a rambler.
On paper, Ed McCurdy's "Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream" sounds hokey, naive and outdated. In Cash's hands, it sounds like another triumph.
After all this talk of redemption, regrets and reapers, a mischievous Cash emerges on Queen Lili'uokalani's "Aloha Oe," which closes out the album, as well as the "American Recording" series. With the tropical paradise melody of breezy guitars, Cash doesn't slip off this mortal coil. He does the hula. Cash doesn't ham it up like the King in 1961's "Blue Hawaii," but he does treat his final luau as a celebration, as he should, and he certainly comes off as the big kahuna. Cash embraces the Hawaiian Islands' well-wishes, "One fond embrace/a hoi ae au/Until we meet again," as if it's as important as anything he has ever read, sang or recited in his life. And, in many ways, he's right.
Key to the Stars
* * * * ... Hot Stuff
* * * ... Good Job
* * ... Not Bad
* ... Never Mind
CUTLINE: "American VI: Ain't No Grave" is Johnny Cash's sixth and final collaboration with rock producer Rick Rubin.
PHOTOG: AP FILE PHOTO