Johnny Cash in 2002, at producer Rick Rubin's recording studio in Los Angeles. Cash died on Sept. 12, 2003.
Between 1993 and 2003, Johnny Cash and Rick Rubin recorded a series of songs — mixtures of Cash's favorites by other writers and Rubin's selection of tunes he thought Cash would approach with a fresh perspective. Rubin's strategy yielded some attention-getting results — most notably, perhaps, Cash singing the Nine Inch Nails song "Hurt." Rubin's ideas could have been mere stunts, but more often — thanks to the sincerity of both men — they turned into interesting music. For this latest collection, there are fewer of those leaps of genre. The song "Ain't No Grave" has a poignancy that goes beyond the obvious — and thanks to Cash's spirited singing, it transcends easy irony.
Some of the songs on American VI: Ain't No Grave don't work. It's not that Cash's voice, weak from illness, wasn't up to the challenge of a composition such as Kris Kristofferson's "For The Good Times." It's just that "For The Good Times" is a maudlin, overrated song — I thought that when Ray Price made a hit of it in 1970, and still think so now, as Cash tries to give himself over to Kristofferson's mawkish sentimentality.
Much more satisfying, if also problematic, is Cash's cover of "I Don't Hurt Anymore." The song was a No. 1 hit for Hank Snow in 1953, and it's a fine example of a country song that says one thing but means the opposite. In this case, the singer announces, "It don't hurt anymore," that he's getting over the heartbreak of losing a lover, yet the entire song belies that notion — the whole point is that we're supposed to realize that the narrator does indeed still hurt, a lot.
Cash's death overtakes certain lyrics on this album — it makes you unable to hear the songs for what they are. In this case, I think Cash sings a lovely version of "I Don't Hurt Anymore." But instead of a song about lingering heartache, it becomes a song about escaping pain through death — which brings us to the bigger problem with the American Recordings series. There's been some criticism of these final recordings from those who suggest that Rick Rubin was reshaping the Cash legacy. Instead of remembering Cash as a vital, sometimes wild, often defiant figure, people who listen to him here experience a man weakened.
I understand the argument against some of these recordings now released posthumously, but I'll defend Rick Rubin in this way: There's a huge body of Johnny Cash work that dwarfs these six collaborations with Rubin. You should go off and listen not just to Cash's famous At Folsom Prison live album but also to 1958's Songs That Made Him Famous, for his Sun Records prime, or 1961's Now Here's Johnny Cash, for a remarkable range of expressiveness spread over a dozen songs. There's a grand legacy of Johnny Cash music that American VI: Ain't No Grave does not by any means trash. It simply presents the man in his final phase, reflective but also active; wanting, needing to make more music. You must choose the way you want to interpret the sentiments that he has left behind.