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American VI: Ain't No Grave
Sublime last hurrah from the man in black
Stuart Clark, 15 Feb 2010
I have to admit that I welled up when I heard Johnny Cash sing the “Don’t look so sad/ I know it’s over” line at the start of ‘For The Good Times’, the previously rather saccharine Kris Kristofferson song, which The Man In Black turns into the most poignant of au revoirs.
Unlike 2Pac Shakur who’s the only other artist to have had so many postumous releases recently, Cash knew he had just months to live when he recorded the sixth – and what producer Rick Rubin promises is the final – installment in his American series.
“Johnny said that recording was his main reason to be alive,” Rubin notes. “I think it was the only thing that kept him going.”
With its release timed to coincide with what would have been Cash’s 78th birthday, Ain’t No Grave is part final will and testament and part celebration of a career that having spent much of the ‘70s and ‘80s in the cabaret doldrums, enjoyed a spectacular late renaissance courtesy of the aforementioned Mr. Rubin who realised that all Johnny needed to tell his story was the proverbial three chords and the truth.
That’s precisely what you get from ‘I Corinthians: 15:55’, a song Cash wrote and re-wrote during the last three years of his life. “Hope springs eternal just over the rise/ When I see my redeemer beckoning me,” he intones in a voice that has more than a hint of the death rattle about it.
The title-track, originally written by Brother Claude Ely but now featuring Cash’s own lyrics, makes for more uneasy listening with its jangling chains, funeral drum and fetid swamp blues guitar.
I doubt if Rubin was standing over him during the sessions going, “What about a single, John?”– but if any of Ain’t No Grave’s 10 tracks is going to follow ‘Hurt’ onto daytime radio, it’s his wonderfully evocative reading of Sheryl Crow’s ‘Redemption Day’.
“That’s the one Johnny brought in and loved,” Rubin reveals. “He said he’d give up all the other songs just to be able to do that one – it was his favourite, content-wise.”