Thursday, March 4, 2010

Johnny Cash • American VI: Ain't No Grave

I've been listening to Johnny Cash since I was a kid, when my stepdad paid me and my stepbrother a dollar apiece to transcribe the lyrics to the songs on Cash's Hot & Blue Guitar album. I don't know what drew me to the songs then, aside from the stories in them (and the challenge of understanding what this man was saying to us boys), but I learned how to play rudimentary versions of "Folsom Prison Blues" and "I Walk the Line" on my guitar. And I kept listening to Johnny throughout my life, even during his depressing '80s move to Mercury Records where they tried to make him appeal to the wide country audience. Aside from a few good versions of older songs, the pickings were pretty slim.

Rick Rubin has just finished the final chapter in Johnny's life, the last songs he sang before he left us. American VI: Ain't No Grave is a lot like all of the American recordings: typically sparse arrangements played by hot dog players with sympathetic ears and skilled fingers. Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench from the Heartbreakers are two of 'em, and what you get here are some lovely tunes sung by a man with that something in his withered but right voice. He does Kris Kristofferson's "For the Good Times," a Sheryl Crow tune called "Redemption Day," and eight others. I love listening to him sing, even in his old age, but I really wish the song choice was more imaginative. There's no "Hurt" here, that stroke of genius that Rubin put to Cash to sing on American IV, and I feel like this sixth volume was sort of scraping, if not the bottom, then the sides of the barrel for whatever was left. (I have no idea how much of this was recorded while Johnny was still alive, and what was added on after.) Don't get me wrong: Like I said above, I love his voice. I feel like I'm listening to my own grandpa handing me down some advice or something. It's just too bad the songs don't feel a little more personal.

Maybe what Rubin should have done with the last few volumes of the series is not tell us anything about 'em. Not who wrote the songs, not who played on them, where they were recorded, or anything. Just let the songs stand on their own and let guys like me sort it out for ourselves.
3/5 (American Recordings)

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