More than six years after his death, a posthumous release from Johnny Cash is set to arrive featuring various covers and an original that’s among the final songs the Man In Black ever wrote. American VI: Ain’t No Grave, the final installment in a series of recordings overseen by producer Rick Rubin, will be released on February 26, what would’ve been Cash’s 78th birthday.
Heavy on acoustic covers, American VI includes songs written by Sheryl Crow and Kris Kristofferson as well as a gospel number previously covered by Bob Dylan. Angling for spiritual and existential themes in the selections, Cash also covered Tom Paxton’s Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound, Bob Nolan’s Cool Water and Queen Lili’uokalani’s Aloha Oe, as well as Ed McCurdy’s anti-war Last Night I Had The Strangest Dream. His own song, I Corinthians: 15:55, was written over the span of his last three years and is included. He died on September 12, 2003, four months after his wife, June Carter Cash. The painful loss of June shook the man to his core, but evidently inspired him to go for one final creative push in his esteemed career.
The American Recordings series kicked off in 1994 with production wizard Rick Rubin, and their collaborations earned six Grammys. The series revitalized Cash’s image and spawned a new generation of fans. Of the various covers he recorded, Johnny’s biggest success was with Nine Inch Nails’ Hurt, which served as a mainstream final farewell from the man.
The duo recorded dozens of songs between the completion of American IV: The Man Comes Around in 2002 and Cash’s death on September 12, 2003. American V showcased many of those songs, while this album completes the series with the rest.
According to Rubin, “Johnny said that recording was his main reason for being alive. I think it was the only thing that kept him going.”
Cash had a feeling that American IV might be his last release, so at Rubin’s urging he immediately began writing and recording new material. He was near the end of his life, however, and special arrangements had to be made for an engineer and guitar players to always be on call. “Every morning, when he’d wake up, he would call the engineer and tell him if he was physically up to working that day,” Rubin explained.
During that time, Rubin went to Nashville several times to record with Cash, but the entire process was very touch-and-go, given the icon’s declining health. “There was a lot of stopping and starting, based on his health,” says Rubin. “But he always wanted to work. The doctors in the hospital kind of lectured me, saying, ‘He’s not going to stop, so you have to make sure he doesn’t work too much.”
Cash knew he was headed for the exit, but he was determined. “There was no fear,” Rubin says. “I remember speaking to him maybe an hour after June died. He had been with her in the hospital, and I’d never heard him so distraught. And he said, ‘You know, I’ve been through tremendous pain in my life, and I’ve never felt anything like this.’ It was so bad that I didn’t know what to say. He sounded so weak, so beaten, and I’d never really heard him like that before. I’m not sure where the question came from, but I said, ‘Do you feel like somewhere you can find faith?’ And when he heard that word, a switch went off in his head, and he answered in a strong voice, ‘My faith is UNSHAKABLE.’ And the conversation changed after that. So he had tremendous faith, he didn’t really have fear and he already was dealing with pain; I think he had acceptance. When he knew he was going to die, he was calm and matter of fact about it, and…that was it.”
American VI features guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench (both of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers), who played on all of the series’ albums except the first. They were joined in the studio by guitarists Matt Sweeney and Jonny Polonsky, as well as Smokey Hormel, who also played on American IV and V. The Avett Brothers also make an appearance on Ain’t No Grave.