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Review

American VI tributes Cash’s final days

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March 12, 2010

American legend Johnny Cash spent the final years of his life working closely with producer Rick Rubin, and the product of these studio hours are still yielding authentic results. The vast library of posthumous albums—from Tupac Shakur to Elvis Presley—is littered with skeletal wreckage bearing no fingerprints of true artistry, yet the latest in his American Recordings sees Cash’s piercing vocals still carrying the same weight and importance as they did a quarter century ago.

One might expect these 10 tracks to scrape the bottom of the barrel in terms of quality, but this is simply not the case.

Released on Feb. 23, 2010, three days before what would have been Cash’s 78th birthday, American VI: Ain’t No Grave is filled with emotional elegies, gospel tales and a country backbone. Fully aware that father time was looming and the clock was ticking down on his long and storied career, Cash mystically conjures an atmosphere of mortality that he wears as comfortably as the color black.

The tracks on American VI were recorded shortly after the death of his lifelong lover, June Carter Cash, and this collection serves as a deeply emotional goodbye from a grieving widower, as well as an un-regretful look back at a long and storied career.

The covers are beautifully arranged in this extremely minimalistic collection, which places even more emphasis on Cash’s deep, methodical croons. The title track, which opens the album features little more than a few acoustic strums here and there, and although he claims that “There ain’t no grave that can hold my body down,” the following tracks sound like the last words of a man who is very much at the end of his rope.

Sheryl Crow’s “Redemption Day” highlights the strength of his own faith. “There’s a train that’s heading straight to heaven’s gate,” sings in a plain and matter-of-fact tone. It’s stunning and beautifully powerful in its sheer simplicity.

The Man in Black remained a commanding presence up until his very final days—an unwavering spirit with a weakening voice. If anyone deserves to go out on a high note, surely it’s him. “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream,” originally recorded by Ed McCurdy, sees Cash looking towards a utopia in which men decide they’ve had enough war and sign contract of peace, “while swords and guns and uniforms were scattered to the ground.”

The final track in what looks to be the final release under Cash’s name is the 19th century Hawaiian song, “Aloha Oe,” is a whimsically lightweight, carefree touching send-off from one of the greatest American voices we’ve ever had the privilege of hearing. When he calmly tips his cowboy hat and says, “Until we meet again,” it seems as if he leaves this world fully prepared to meet his maker.

Andrew Phelps is an alumnus of UW-River Falls.