Johnny Cash spent his entire career speaking to and for the common man. Whether it was in his lyrics, or the way he dressed in black, he never forgot where he came from. On American VI: Ain’t No Grave (American Recordings/Lost Highway), the sixth and final volume of his unforgettable collaboration with producer Rick Rubin, Cash, fully aware that the end was near for him, had already moved beyond this world in terms of his music. Instead of speaking directly to his audience as he always had, he looked past us, or maybe above us, to the next phase. The album is a direct communication between a dying man and whatever comes next.
When American IV: The Man Comes Around was completed in 2002, Cash feared that it would be his last album. Rubin encouraged him to keep writing and recording. The sessions continued right up until Cash died on September 12, 2003. Some of the recordings were released as American V: A Hundred Highways, and the remainder make up American VI. Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboard player Benmont Tench are once again on board, as they have been for every album in the American Recordings series except for the very first one. They are joined by guitarists Jonny Polonsky, Matt Sweeney, and Smokey Hormel. Scott and Seth Avett make a cameo appearance on the album’s opening track, the devastating “Ain’t No Grave.”
For this final dance, Rubin has dispensed with the contemporary, but sometimes gimmicky alt-rock covers, focusing instead on classic material like Kris Kristofferson’s “For the Good Times,” and “Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound,” by Tom Paxton. The album closes, fittingly, with Queen Lili’uokalani’s farewell song, “Aloha Oe.” There is also a Cash original, “I Corinthians: 15:55,” that was written during the last three years of his life:
Oh death, where is thy sting?
Oh grave, where is thy victory?
Oh life, you are a shining path
And hope springs eternal just over the rise
When I see my redeemer beckoning me
Oh roll my ship over the waves of your sea
Let me find a safe port now and then
Don’t let the Dark One in your sanctuary
Until it’s time to pack it in
Just let me sail into your harbor of lights
And there and forever to cast out my line
Give me my task and let me do it right
And do it with all of my might
It is nearly impossible to assess American VI as one would any other new release. It is such a personal statement that at times it feels like the listener is eavesdropping on a private conversation. It is completely and utterly beyond criticism. It is beyond top ten lists or other worldly evaluations. American VI is instantly an absolutely essential part of any collection of American music.