If Ain’t No Grave, the final installment in Johnny Cash’s rich collaboration with producer Rick Rubin, had appeared in, say, 1980, in the midst of an otherwise undistinguished run of Cash albums, it would have hardly caused a ripple.
The raw ingredients—a few covers of well-known country hits, a couple of traditional folk songs, an original sacred composition—reprise the same formula that Cash employed since the early ’70s. It had all been done before, and many times.
But because these are the final recordings (no, really, we mean it this time) of a musical titan who dominated half a century, the songs here will be scrutinized far more closely than his earlier material. You may recall the 2006 posthumous album American V: A Hundred Highways, formerly billed as the Man in Black’s last musical will and testament. It turns out there were 10 more tracks in the vault, recorded during the same 2002 and 2003 sessions that produced American V. Hence, Ain’t No Grave.
This is clearly the inferior batch of tunes, rightly relegated to outtake status. But while the songs are sometimes slight and the performances undeniably shaky, Cash utterly owns the material, exuding such a commanding gravitas and powerful sense of soul that the album works in spite of its faults. As is true of all the American Recordings, Rubin’s production is stark. The focus is on Cash’s ravaged, straining, world-weary voice: Like that of Billie Holiday on 1958’s Lady in Satin, or Marianne Faithfull on 1979’s Broken English, it conveys more in its shattered diminishment than most singers can conjure in their prime.
For better and worse, the mythmaking proceeds apace. Rubin and Cash carefully culled the American Recordings material, and on both A Hundred Highways and Ain’t No Grave Cash’s meticulously constructed persona is very much in place. The songs are both intensely personal and universally emblematic of Man Facing Death, and Cash throws himself into the fray with as much vigor as his failing health allows. This is a man who once famously greeted a pushy photographer at San Quentin with an insolent middle finger, and the title track, kicking off the album with its defiant chorus, is the equivalent greeting for encroaching death.
There are wistful farewells to beloved friends (renditions of Kris Kristofferson’s “For the Good Times” and Tom Paxton’s “Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound”). There is the evocation of a life well lived and the reassurance of a better life to come (J.H. Red Hayes and Jack Rhodes’ “Satisfied Mind,” Don Robertson and Jack Rollins’ “I Don’t Hurt Anymore”). And naturally there is a train song, Sheryl Crow’s poignant “Redemption Day.” The one original Cash composition, “1 Corinthians 15:55,” is a slight little waltz that never quite convinces us death has lost its sting—his voice is too ravaged to pull off such a feat.
Grave concludes with a hopeful reading of Ed McCurdy’s classic song “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream” and with an impossibly moving cover of “Aloha Oe,” a song that is as cloying as any ever written. It calls to mind images of swaying hula girls and Elvis Presley in Blue Hawaii, and it shouldn’t work. But it does. That’s because it’s a song informed by intravenous drips and the smell of hospital disinfectant, not by an island paradise. Until we meet again, indeed.
Shuttling between the hospital and the recording studio, Cash found a way to redeem even the most maudlin material. The result is the capstone building block of Rubin’s iconic monument to Cash, a larger-than-life musician who remained poignantly, thrillingly human until the very end.