Hearing the distinctive voice of the legend that is Johnny Cash, essentially from beyond our mortal realm, is jarring at first. I am struck with a wave of sadness, an overwhelming sense that I am listening to something that doesn’t seem possible, both because Cash has been gone for nearly seven years, and because Cash’s voice has always seemed beyond the confines of possibility. What I am struck by most is the opening track itself, a spiritual by Claude Ely, used also as the album’s subtitle, a song that bathes the whole affair in an eerie light. The song is called “Ain’t No Grave (Gonna Hold Me Down).” It couldn’t get any more fitting than that.
The resurgence of Johnny Cash’s popularity, especially after his death, and the numerous releases that have sold as well or better than his albums during life are testament to the veracity of the lyrics in that opening track, but I am struck by something else. If we are to believe the hype, this particular track is the last ever laid down by Cash, adding to its eerie mystique. As those who have been following Cash know, his voice had taken on quite a ramshackle quality toward the end, yet on “Ain’t No Grave,” Cash’s voice seems smoother, more delicate and calmer than ever. It’s as if the angels themselves had touched Cash in that studio, knowing it to be his last song, and said, “hey gang, let’s let him have this one.”
As should be obvious, Ain’t No Grave is the sixth installment of the Cash and Rubin collaboration, the American series. These particular songs were left over from the recording session for the fifth volume, never really intended to be an album of its own. This collection of songs, a series of tracks that meditate on death, transition and the memories of life act as a kind of unintentional late goodbye, a found diary of sorts, letting us know at the same time that through his music, Cash will never leave us, and that he was at peace with his eventual passing. In this way, this album is the equivalent of the video for “Hurt,” incredibly meaning and poignant, but could bring you to tears at any one moment. One look at the song titles will give you a good sense of the thematic element to these songs. And yes, while these themes are rampant throughout Cash’s life, and in country or gospel music in general, the theme seems more relevant in this context.
Standouts on Ain’t No Grave, other than the title track itself, include a subtly joyous turn on Tom Paxton’s “Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound,” a version of the oft covered “A Satisfied Mind,” (even his daughter, Roseanne did a version with Neko Case) and “Redemption Day,” the latest ‘modern’ track to become the property of Cash after his appropriation of it. Sorry, Sheryl Crow, talk to Trent Reznor and Chris Cornell about how it feels to have a song taken from you for better effect. Appropriately, the last track on the album is a goodbye, albeit one we might not expect. A traditional Hawaiian song, written by the last Queen of Hawai’I, Lili’uokalani, namely, “Aloha Oe,” is not exactly the first song one would put in Cash’s hands, but again, he can do anything. It’s words say what most of us cannot muster, “Farewell to you, farewell to you / The charming one who dwells in the shaded bowers / One fond embrace / ‘Ere I depart / Until we meet again.”
Johnny Cash – American series
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