Before starting this blog, I had already developed a relatively extensive rapport of music from past and present. Of course, I was just one music devotee, so there were plenty of artists that I knew existed and I knew others enjoyed, but never got around to listening to. As a result, with Check Your Mode, I have been able to dip my toe into artists and genres both old and new that I would not normally look into.
And so this brings me to American VI: Ain't No Grave, in which I open myself to the life and music of Johnny Cash at the end of both. American VI is the sixth and supposedly last collection of songs from the sessions that Cash had recorded with Rick Rubin at the end of his life that will ever see the light of day. All but one of its ten songs are covers and all of them have that folks-y sound to them that fans of the American series and Johnny Cash have come to expect.
Since Ain't No Grave was released, critics have been accusing Rick Rubin of being over-eager to draw nostalgia from the listener with the after-the-fact accouterments he has added to Cash's mostly acoustic recordings. For the most part, I don't agree with this sentiment. The proverbial sap spile to the maple of nostalgia: unnecessary string arragements, are never an uncomfortable presence on this album. Still, there is no doubt that the best of Ain't No Grave is when the least window dressing is applied. All Rubin has to do is introduce the sound of clinking chains or plunk a low note on a piano to make the title track and album highlight, "Redemption Day", respectively, extremely effective. "Water", which features nothing more than an acoustic and Cash's rosy tenor, is something of pure hushed wonderment as the man describes a tale of temptation amidst a desert landscape.
Like much of the American series, Ain't No Grave is successful in at least converting every song Cash plays into something purely his own. I could not imagine hearing the songs of Ain't No Grave being covered by anyone else, even album closer, "Aloha Oye", whose straightforward and surprisingly spry performance is absolutely lovely, even if it's not the outright tear-jerker Rick Rubin may have intended it to be. At times, Cash sounds vulnerable on Ain't No Grave, at others stoic. But what's ultimately fulfilling about the album is that, even at the end of his life, Cash exuded a confidence and passion in his music that could take others multiple lifetimes to muster.