Johnny Cash’s career is one for the ages – a story with the resonance of Moses: his grandparents immigrated from the Glasgow shipyards and he was born into poverty in the land of promise as the son of a share cropper yet gifted with a voice that could sing into the poverty in all of us as well as beyond that poverty into something more. He was a mentor to Elvis and a bad boy before thugs got record contracts. His early career was truly the all-american success story – he was more than famous – he defined fame itself in early days. He crossed genres and mediums – scoring hits on the pop charts as well as country chards, had a long running television show and did film work. Then in the 70’s as disco took hold and moved us into the 1980’s, Cash’s currency began to wane. It was through the revisionism of Rick Rubin – the wunderkind producer par excellence – and his American Recordings series in the 1990’s that brought Johnny Cash back to us with a holy vengeance. Like a junkyard dog who refused to die without sinking his teeth into you one last time, Rubin turned Cash loose on tracks by artists as diverse as Nine Inch Nails, Neil Diamond, Sheryl Crow, Soundgarden and Tom Petty to rip the songs part with his sharecropper growl and claim them for himself. Of all the haunting covers he recorded with Rubin over the next decade, none captures Cash’s gift like Nick Cave’s The Mercy Seat and Trent Reznor’s Hurt (which won Cash a Grammy for the song and video). The Mercy Seat sounds like a lost track from the At Folsom Prison sessions – a stark, raw final exclamation of a man on death row in a electric chair. Hurt is one of the most ‘human’ songs to be recorded in popular music and is one of the few examples of the video medium serving the song as opposed to distracting or covering up a bad song with dance numbers or CGI (Click through to the video and take a moment to see what I am talking about).
The release this week of Ain’t No Grave marks what is being said to be the final installment of Rubin’s American Recording series. Ain’t No Grave is the sixth installment and is a welcome close to this incredible series. Granted, the tracks are obviously a culling together of reminders from recording sessions past (the five CD American Recordings Box Set that was released a few years ago is an example of how much surplus material Rubin still had just laying around the studio).
Thematic CDs are nothing new for Cash – Columbia released a 3 part series (Love, God, Murder) a few years back to ride Rubin’s American Recording success. That Rubin culled this collection to identify Cash’s thoughts on death, loss, and life after the grave is poignant to say the least. The only original tune on the collection is “1Corinthians 15:55” which holds that iconic verse “oh death, where is thy sting?” Cash sings from this space as someone in the throws of the end and resting in the promise of death as opposed to denying it. It is truly haunting to hear these songs knowing that Cash is no longer singing this mediation upon death – these songs are the preamble to his embrace and a call to confidence in death for a generation that is terrified by it. Having lost his wife – June Carter Cash – just years prior to these recordings and knowing that the end was coming, Rubin reflects in the February 17th Rolling Stone that these tracks were born from confidence and not fear: “He didn’t really have fear and he already was dealing with pain,” Rubin said. “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.”
It really is a wonderful, honest, clear reflection on life and the gift of death that reminds us to take stock of what we have and the God that awaits us both in this life and the life that is yet to come.