In 1994, Johnny Cash released American Recordings, his first team-up with Rick Rubin, the producer who continued to work beside him until Cash’s 2003 death. Their American albums gave Cash spare, sympathetic production and first-rate material, burnishing his status as an American legend. The collaboration began as a spirited act of professional revitalization, but as their decade together progressed, Cash’s health declined and the work’s focus turned ever more intently toward final things.
American VI: Ain’t No Grave arrives billed as the last fruit of that pairing. It’s drawn largely from the same sessions that produced American V: A Hundred Highways and recorded at least partly after the death of Cash’s wife, June Carter Cash, as his sight dimmed and his own body failed him for the last time. It’s no surprise that Ain’t No Grave is focused on death and loss. But as usual, Cash uses his Christian faith as the ultimate rebuttal to life’s disappointments. “Ain’t no grave gonna hold my body down,” Cash sings, as the musical setting of the traditional title track sounds ominous tones. Hope was his last act of defiance.
The 10 songs on American VI find Cash sounding frail but determined, and the material doesn’t let him down. The one original, “I Corinthians 15:55,” uses a Bible verse (“Oh death, where is thy sting?”) to set the tone for the album: This isn’t ultimately about tearful goodbyes, but welcome departures and happy endings. Tom Paxton’s “Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound” finds a lifelong wanderer contemplating the end of the road, and “I Don’t Hurt Anymore” imagines a life without anguish. A cover of Queen Lili’uokalani’s famous Hawaiian farewell “Aloha Oe” may seem like an odd choice for the last song of Cash’s proper recorded career, but he turns it into an apt summary of what’s come before, a fond remembrance of life’s pleasures from past the point of earthly cares. Cash is gone now. Aloha means goodbye. But it also means love, mercy, and compassion, all values he treasured. And in this context, it has another meaning found in the last words on the album, and delivered with all the conviction he could summon: “Until we meet again.”