Johnny Cash's 'Ain't No Grave': The right epitaph to a singular career?
Veteran music journalist Chet Flippo, now the editorial director for the Country Music Television cable channel and its website, CMT.com, raises an intriguing question about the final entry in the series of “American” albums performed by Johnny Cash and produced by Rick Rubin.
I spoke to Rubin recently about “American VI: Ain’t No Grave,” which comes out Feb. 26, on what would have been Cash's 78th birthday, for a piece coming in Sunday’s Arts & Books section. Rubin discusses his great affection for the Man in Black and his feelings of gratitude at both the music they created together and for the larger gift of his friendship with one of the giants of 20th century music. I also interviewed a couple of other key participants in the project: Cash’s son, John Carter Cash, and guitarist Mike Campbell, who with keyboardist Benmont Tench, a fellow member of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers, played on most of the sessions for the six albums recorded from 1993 until shortly before Cash’s death on Sept. 12, 2003.
All spoke about how moving it was to witness Cash, in the final months of his life, struggling with failing health, devastated by the death of his wife, June Carter Cash, in May 2003, yet still mustering the will to make more music with what time remained.
Flippo asks whether his memory will be well served by the recordings he made under such circumstances. “Not every home recording by every aging artist needs to be released," Flippo writes in his latest Nashville Skyline column. “To be sure, it was Cash’s decision to spend his final days recording, rather than waiting for death to come and claim him. But. The question lingers: Should these recordings -- recorded by a man who was racing against time -- represent his last recorded work ever?”
As a music critic who saw Cash in concert many times over the last 35 years, both at full strength and toward the end of his touring days when health issues had started chipping away at that force of nature power, I find “Ain’t No Grave” tremendously moving. There are songs where his voice is remarkably potent, especially given how evident advancing age was in much of the 2006 predecessor, “American V: A Hundred Highways.”
Rubin noted that Cash had good and bad days while they were working on the recordings, and that the goal was always to get the best vocal performance Cash could give.
“In a lot of ways, making it was the same as the other albums,” said Mike Campbell. “The difference was Johnny wasn’t here, and that was sad. But we could feel his presence, so it was beautiful too. I felt very honored to be included. I really loved the man, and he was always very kind to me, so I was honored to be there and help in any way I could.
“He wasn’t in the best of health, but we didn’t expect him to go that soon,” Campbell recalled. “We know he missed June a lot. At same time, he really wanted to record, and that’s what kept him going. We just hoped it would have kept him going longer. I have a hunch he wanted to get as much on tape as he could before he left, but I really can’t speak to that.”
John Carter Cash saw things from a slightly different perspective, which he spoke about with discernible emotion in his voice.
“I have a distinct separation between Johnny Cash the performer and entertainer, and Johnny Cash, my father and the man,” Cash, 39, said. “Doing things like this interview and seeing him on television, I still see the entertainer and performer every day. But I miss the man very much.”
As for “Ain’t No Grave,” which he helped shepherd through to completion, “It’s painful to listen to sometimes. In listening to it, you hear the weakness, and the frailty. But the thing I hear first and foremost is the strength.
“That’s what bears upon my spirit, hearing that strength, and that’s what I walk away with, the lesson to be learned from that beauty of character, the unstoppable human spirit. I truly believe his body gave up, but his spirit did not.”
Not so much contradicting Rubin, but elaborating on his comment about the musician's physical ups and downs, Cash said, “My father in the last couple of years really didn’t have a good day physically. What you hear in those recordings where his voice sounds so strong is the pure strength of his spirit.”
Flippo’s argument comes from an honorable place: that it’s better to remember our most vital musicians at their artistic peak -- in Cash’s case, in those magnificent sides he cut for Sam Phillips at Sun Records in the 1950s, or the towering albums he made for Columbia in the 1960s and '70s. But with Johnny Cash,a man of deeply abiding religious faith, one who believed with everything in him in the transformative power of that faith over the limitations of life on earth, the waning days of life are every bit as worthy of attention as the glory days.
“I’m grateful this record is coming out -- he would have had it that way,” John Carter Cash said. “He wanted this record to be released. He was always willing to show his weakness and his frailties. I think it’s one way people related to him: He’s not saying he’s perfect, but just look at him, listen to that voice, look at that determination. He was right.”
Photo: Johnny Cash in August 1970. Credit: © Bettmann/CORBIS
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