American Recordings/Lost Highway

There’s soul music and then there’s music of the soul. American VI: Ain’t No Grave, the latest collection of unreleased Johnny Cash studio recordings, is the latter.

Johnny Cash’s voice has long had a way of soaking deep into your core – it’s the sound of wisdom, patience, faith, and having been there and back. Forget about “country music” – that’s got nothing to do with it. This is the music of the soul.

American VI is purported to be the final grouping of songs from Cash’s collaboration with producer Rick Rubin that began with 1994’s American Recordings. As with previous albums in the series, the songs on American VI are almost all covers (the one exception being one of Cash’s last self-penned songs, “I Corinthians 15:55”). No matter – the choices are good ones; Cash wraps them around him like a comfy old sheepskin coat and makes ‘em his own.

Take “Satisfied Mind”, for instance: Jeff Buckley, Joan Baez, and The Byrds have all covered this old tune by Red Hayes and Jack Rhodes:

How many times have you heard someone say,
“If I had money, I would do things my way”
But little they know, that it’s so hard to find
One rich man in ten, with a satisfied mind

Money can’t buy back all your youth when you’re old,
A friend when you’re lonely, or peace to your soul
The wealthiest person, is a pauper at times
Compared to the man with a satisfied mind

When my life is over and my time has run out,
My friends and my loved ones, I will leave there’s no doubt
But one thing’s for certain, when it comes my time,
I’ll leave this old world with a satisfied mind

But when Cash doles it out, it feels like a gift of insight direct from him … made especially bittersweet when you consider how to close to the end he actually was when he recorded it. (Note: this is not a downer album, by any means. No doubt, Cash knew his time to record was limited and tried to work in the studio whenever his failing health allowed it, but these tunes are full of strength and courage … the man had things squared away and you can hear it in the music.)

Rubin knows his place as producer, for the most part. Cash’s voice alone makes the songs on American VI be what they are and needs no gimmicks. The only time an arrangement pushes it at all is on the title track, “Ain’t No Grave”. True, the ghostly footstomps (courtesy of Seth Avett, with brother Scott contributing a little tasteful banjo) fit the spirit of the song, but it’s Cash’s vocal that makes the hair stand up on your arms:

There ain’t no grave can hold my body down There ain’t no grave can hold my body down When I hear that trumpet sound,
I’m gonna rise right outta the ground
There ain’t no grave can hold my body down

The album closes sweetly with “Aloha Oe”, an old Hawaiian folk tune. A bit of dobro sets the mood, but in the end, what more do you need than the vision of Johnny waving goodbye?

Aloha ‘oe, aloha ‘oe
E ke onaona noho i ka lipo
One fond embrace,
A hoʻi aʻe au
Until we meet again

We should all have such grace.