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Give Life Back To Music 10.21.13: Johnny Cash - The Rubin Years: American VI: Ain't No Grave
Posted by Sean Comer on 11.25.2013

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    Johnny Cash – American VI: Ain't No Grave

Well, here we are – some last words (for now) to sum up Johnny Cash's recordings with acclaimed producer Rick Rubin on American Records.

While I can't say anything patently negative, I also wish that I could be as glowing as I've been toward the five albums that came before 2010's American VI: Ain't No Grave. Unfortunately, when continued through a long enough timeline, everything eventually reaches a point of diminished returns. Highly as I regard Rubin as a sort of shaman who draws forth things from the artists with whom he works that no other producer could raise, he really carried on a conversation past a point when there was anything left to say.

If this week's column seems brief, it's because my own conscience prefers that I avoid the same trap. Let's take a last look at the capstone era of recordings by a defining icon of American music.

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  • Johnny Cash

  • American VI: Ain't No Grave

  • RELEASED: February 23, 2010

  • American Recordings/Lost Highway Records

  • When Johnny Cash died in 2003, less than a year after his landmark American IV: The Man Comes Around wrote a new afterword for a half-century career music, friend and American Records producer Rick Rubin estimated that the Man in Black left behind around 50 unreleased songs recorded between American VI's completion and Cash's death.

    Many of those unheard works would find their way onto a brilliant five-disc boxed set chronicling the pair's unique sessions, Unearthed. Rubin promised that remained would compose only two final albums, American V: A Hundred Highways and Ain't No Grave.

    Though A Hundred Highways didn't gather the acclaim deservedly laid upon The Man Comes Around or generate a single as timelessly emblematic of Cash's life and career as "Hurt", it was still an apropos companion. If The Man Comes Around was Cash's bedside last words as he tenderly held his surviving loved ones' hands, then A Hundred Highways was a fitting summation, a eulogy to an American chronicler and conscience who wore a grim shade, but wore it well and honestly.

    Following its release, one critic called this album "Rubin's memorial mixtape." Reticent as I usually am to pander too much to critics, that's not really far off the mark. The songs are characteristically excellent, but one could skip this album almost entirely and not miss much.

    To get the obvious out of the way early, the title cut is obviously the highlight. Cash's take on an aged spiritual has not so much the head-held-high, feet-firmly-planted stance of will that colors his version of "I Won't Back Down". Instead, this is a grimly defiant dirge of resolve. Hauntingly, Cash reminds us that whenever he might finally walk away from this world and however his end might come, he'll leave it with reunion awaiting him. The percussive footfalls and drag of chains pair with meandering banjo and piano alongside briefly moaning, bending guitars. All of the above backing Cash's tired baritone create an almost chilling atmosphere.

    Actually, I'd have almost preferred it if this had simply been released as a standalone tribute single rather than one track among these final ten.

    Otherwise….well, there's just not much else to add. Most noticeably, the album lacks the moments present in the five prior ones in which Cash approaches a genre-molded song and retouches it to create something special and memorable in its own way. His cover of Sheryl Crow's "Redemption Day" is nice, but it's a fairly stale permutation of Cash and Rubin's bare, rootsy approach. In fact, it's one of the rare times when the blending of organ, sparsely punctuating piano and lightly picked guitar sounds uninspired.

    His cover of Bob Nolan's 1936 trail-style ballad "Cool Water" is endearing to me simply because, like Cash's rare take on "Big Iron", I get to hear him play a song that I remember most fondly from Dad's cassette copy of Marty Robbins' Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs. Otherwise, while it isn't an entirely lackluster set, these ten songs feel like they could've just as easily been shelved for inclusion on Unearthed without really loosing anything of value.


    Here's the thing, though….

    This album may not be anything special, with the exception of it being the last proper, complete Johnny Cash studio album. It might suffer from the fact that, in the end, it's material that Rick Rubin cobbled together posthumously rather than something in which Cash himself really had a significant say.

    Still, you know something? I would listen to even this a thousand times over before listening to five more minutes of contemporary country music.

    It's a genre that's lost its way and will probably never find it again. Try as an artist here or there might to restore country music's most indestructible and timeless roots to visibility, the attempts are always shouted down by schtick-laden laziness and a "Can't beat ‘em? Join ‘em" resignation to simple pandering to every other genre's norms.

    A commenter last week surmised, "The problem with Johnny Cash is that he has a monotone voice." Now, let's set aside for a moment that I'm not completely sure this individual understands what "monotone" really means. If I'm to look at things comparatively, I see whence this comment comes.

    I see the point, and I still disagree.

    True, Cash works from an unmistakable, bottom-heavy voice. Even as age wore it thread-bare, though, he conveyed so very much more with a fraction of a fraction of the self-parody theatrics to which today's indistinguishable pretty boys with cowboy hats knee-jerk. He didn't need an octave-spanning range that he could ascend and shoot down like a rollercoaster. He rarely needed to raise his voice to make you feel what he needed you to feel.

    That's because, to Cash, country wasn't an act. It wasn't even a "genre." It wasn't a cozy, warm Billboard pigeonhole. It was his heart. It was his soul. He sang everything so tenderly and with such conviction because it was who he was. He wasn't a man that needed to run around yelling about a "honky-tonk badonkadonk" to drive home his rural-Arkansas roots. When his social conscience reverberated throughout his words, he never needed to resort to clubbing the airwaves with a red-white-and-blue, elephant-shaped six-string to make himself understood.

    That voice was so firm with identity and rich with conviction, that Cash always said that his favorite recorded songs were simple hymns and spirituals that hearkened to his earliest memories of making music with his mother when he was a boy. When the music comes from someplace that firmly tied to who a man or woman is, it's at its best in settings such as those heard in these six albums.


    Believe it or not, I'm not quite done with Johnny Cash yet.

    After giving it some thought, I'm going to come back some time in 2014 to take a good look at the Unearthered boxed set, as it features some outstanding unreleased material. I stopped short of discussing it here because, well, I quite frankly need to switch artists. When I spend long enough talking about one in particular, I begin to get a bit bored and unmotivated. Plus, I figure, you all probably wouldn't mind a good change of pace.

    So, here's how we're closing out 2013 and ringing in 2014.

    Next month, we take a look at a duo that ignited my love for a genre toward which I'd once been pretty cold. Just so happens, they're also responsible for this very column's name.

    Welcome, fellow Babies, to DAFTCEMBER.

    I'll be presenting a look at not just Daft Punk's four full-length studio albums, but also a tribute to what is practically an unofficial "fifth" album: the TRON: Legacy OST. I'll explain why I find these icons of EDM so fascinatingly unique, but I'll also cop to understanding absolutely why they're a love-‘em-or-hate-‘em pair of artists.

    In January, we go right back hip-hop. For the first time since I started this column, we'll dig into the legacy of an artist whose first three albums positively lit me up….right before he went on a three-album streak of seemingly wanting to see how few fucks he could convince me to give, then released a return-to-form album that rallied my interest again. It's going to be a lengthy look at Eminem, but I'm not going about this one alone. Each week, I'll be calling upon 411mania music reviewer and WWE Raw ringmaster Tony Acero to offer up an alternate take on each album.

    In late February, we're coming right back to country. Since they're reuniting to once more tour Europe and Canada in 2014, I think it's time to come right back to the band I had set my heart on visiting before a mandate from above my head urged me to go with someone else. In only four albums, they became arguably one of my favorite country artists of all time. Just so happens, they're every ounce as gifted when performing apart as they are together as a trio. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, we'll be kicking off this spring with the hatching of the Dixie Chicks.


    One last note, everybody……

    As I keep on rolling into my second year writing with 411mania, I want to begin by thanking every last one of you who followed my stint writing Music's 3 Rs, listened weekly to my podcasting co-hunting shenanigans on Man Cave Thoughts, Bad Move Review Club, Everyone Loves A Bad Guy and of course Long Road to Ruin, and supported the launch of this new series.

    Additionally, thanks to Larry Csonka, Ashish Pabari and Jeremy Thomas for giving me this opportunity to write, podcast and pontificate for a site I've been following as a fan for seven years.

    While I'm at it, thanks to Jeremy for enduring the many days when I'm positive I'm more maintenance than my traffic makes me worth.

    Thanks to Jeremy Lambert and Samer Kadi for being magnificent friends and helping me find the gap through which I got my foot in the door.

    Thanks to Tony Acero, Patrick Thomas, Stewart Lange, Ari Berenstein, Robert Cooper and Robert Winfree for the outstanding Facebook conversations. I am proud to be your "Roderick Strong of 411mania."

    More thanks than I could ever give at once to Mark Radulich. We've fostered one of my most valued friendships from what started as a simple trial gig hosting a podcast together. I couldn't ask for a rapport that's more rewarding at every possible level.

    Last but never, ever, EVER least…..

    Thank you, Scarlett, for more things than three lifetimes would grant me time to list. For brevity's sake, thank you for resurrecting the good man that I've always been but who couldn't always claw his way to the surface before there was you.

    Thanks, Jackie, for being a loyal friend and for staying up incredibly late on work nights just to read the column and catch podcast overruns.

    Thanks to Anne for always letting me bounce album impressions off of you, for flying from Missouri to Phoenix just to see the three surviving Monkees in concert with me and for 12 years as a better friend than I've sometimes deserved.

    I have so very, very much to be thankful for this year, especially with my 31st birthday around the corner. Every day means so very much to me.

    Never dull your colors for someone else's canvas.


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