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Ain’t No Grave: A Fitting End for the Man in Black

Nick Anderson | Thursday, February 25, 2010

‘Bob Dylan once said Johnny Cash “was and is the North Star; you could guide your ship by him. The greatest of the greats — then and now.”
His career is impossible to put into perspective. He stands among the musical elite, and with the exception of Elvis and The Beatles, there are none above him in terms of popular and critical success. He’s one of the many great American stories: grew up poor, served in the army, hit rock bottom (on more than one occasion), found family and religion, and faded from the spotlight as he aged. Cash’s career and legacy reached a pinnacle in 1994 when he changed course.
After being dropped by Columbia, Cash was washed up until label co-head Rick Rubin signed him to American Recordings, a rap and heavy metal label. The contract blossomed into six remarkable albums and a new audience for Cash.
“American VI: Ain’t No Grave,” Cash’s latest and perhaps final entry in his extensive discography was released on Jan. 23, three days short of what would have been his 78th birthday, with the blessings of his friends and family.
It’s been seven years and another album since Cash left this world. It comes as no surprise that much of his output in his last days would focus on his impending death. “Ain’t No Grave” is a natural culmination of both his American Recordings and his impressive career. Gone is the anger, regret and sorrow that pervaded much of his work from the 90s (most notably on his cover of Trent Reznor’s “Hurt”). Instead, a portrait of man’s proper relationship with death is painted; not eager, but certainly not afraid.
Cash only authored a single track on the album, “I Corinthians 15:55.” Taking his inspiration from the Pauline verse, “O Death, where is your victory? O Death, where is your victory?” Cash tells of salvation with all the conviction of a preacher and twice the effectiveness.
The album art, a concept almost lost in the digital age, highlights his song writing, piecing together several handwritten drafts in lieu of proper liner notes. The back cover presents Cash through a windowpane in the months before his death. Careful consideration was clearly taken in the look of the album and, while it continues in motifs familiar to Rubin’s style, Cash’s young countenance shines out from the cover, an unusual but poignant choice for such a somber album.
The material that Cash covers, perhaps the strongest point of American Recordings — other than Cash himself — is the most consistent of the series. Thankfully, gone are the cheesy choices such as “A Legend in my Time” from “A Hundred Highways” or “Danny Boy” off “The Man Comes Around.” Sheryl Crow’s “Redemption Day” meshes beautifully with Cash’s weathered vocals and stripped instruments. The final track on Cash’s final album is a surprising choice, the iconic Hawaiian “Aloha Oe.” It masterfully avoids the pitfalls that could have easily turned it into a novelty song and ends the musical career of a legend with the grace, beauty, elegance and joy evident in the words of the piece.
No artist will ever age as gracefully as Cash did. He never burnt or faded out, became a caricature, stayed past his welcome or impeded his own legacy. In the final years of his life, he recorded hundreds of songs. From these, Rick Rubin was able to put together a proper final album for the “Man in Black.” While it would be impossible to say “Ain’t No Grave” is Cash’s best album, it now ranks among the essentials in a string of masterpieces.