I say ‘Johnny Cash’ and you say ‘Joaquin Phoenix’. I say ‘brilliant and deeply troubled country musician who struggled his whole life with alcohol, drugs and his relationship with God’ and you say ‘a feel-good Hollywood love-story that ends when guy marries girl and they live happily ever after.’
Walk The Line ended just before Johnny Cashes life actually got interesting and way too much emphasis was placed on his relationship with June Carter, which was basically the focal point of the entire movie and the reason why there has to be a Walk The Line II: Cash Comes Back which I will of course write and direct.
The tragedy of Johnny Cashes life was that for over a decade the world completely forgot about him. He reached the height of his success in the 60s and 70s and had one hit after the next, as well as numerous appearances on TV and in film, but when 1980 hit, the world turned its back on the Man In Black, leaving Cash feeling forgotten and dejected.
And that’s pretty much where Johnny Cashes story would have ended if it weren’t for Rick Rubin and his formidable skills as a music visionary and producer. Under Rubin’s supervision, Cash recorded the album American Recordings in his living room in 1994, a collection of cover songs and original material that won a Grammy that year for Best Contemporary Folk Album.
Another three ‘American’ albums followed, Unchained (1996), American III: Solitary Man (2000) and American IV: The Man Comes Around (2002). American IV is widely regarded as Cashes epitaph as it was the last album he recorded before his death in September 2003. It contains his cover of the Nine Inch Nails song ‘Hurt’, the video of which is immensely powerful and I’d urge anyone reading this to watch it right now.
After his death, a fifth American album was released from left-over material he’d recorded with Rubin entitled, American V: A Hundred Highways (2006) which has sold 337,000 copies since its release and which looked like it was going to be the last album of new material to be released, until now.
This year sees the release of American VI: Ain’t No Grave, also produced by Rubin and all I can say is I hope this is the last American album that Rubin produces because while it really does shine in parts, mostly it ambles through one overly religious country song after the next and then ends, somewhat bizarrely, on the Hawaiian song ‘Aloha Oe’ 32 minutes later.
The title track and opening song ‘Ain’t No Grave’ is definitely one of the album’s stronger tracks and the line ‘When I hear that trumpet sound / Gonna rise right out of the ground / Ain’t no grave / Can hold my body down’ is strangely prophetic given that Cash has basically released this album from the grave.
It’s a slow and badass country song which, when combined with the lumbering drum beat and the repeating sound of chains being dragged, makes for a haunting track. You kinda get the feeling that at any moment you could look over your shoulder and be greeted by zombie Johnny Cash, covered in dust and dirt, wearing a tattered black suit, grinning and playing a banjo carved out of bones.
The mood doesn’t lift as the second song ‘Redemption Day’ (a Sheryl Crow cover) plays, but that’s not a bad thing. Cashes rendition of the song, with his old and quavering bass-baritone voice is heartfelt and moving. It sure as hell won’t get the party started, but it just might keep you company in moments when life is shitty and hope is hard to come by.
The song ‘Satisfied Mind’, which featured in Kill Bill Vol. 2 is also a great track. It’s just Cash and his guitar, strumming a slow song about how ‘There’s one thing for certain / When it comes my time / I’ll leave this ol’ world / With a satisfied mind.’ I’ve always loved this song because it perfectly captures the space Cashes mind was in during his twilight years and it’s a space I hope I might reach someday myself.
The rest of the songs on the album waver between sounding like hokey church hymns (‘I Corinthians: 15:55) and down-trodden, my-girl-left-me-and-my-horse-just-died country ballads (‘For The Good Times’, ‘Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound’, ‘Cool Water’) that could very well bore you to tears.
Unlike previous American albums, this won’t appeal to a younger audience. If you’re a die-hard Johnny Cash fan, you’ll appreciate this album, but will also concede that it’s not his best. However, if you’re one of the many who’s only real perception of the Man In Black was shaped entirely by Walk The Line, you won’t find any of the upbeat tracks like ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’, ‘Ring Of Fire’, and ‘I Walk The Line’ on Ain’t No Grave and probably won’t find it appealing in the slightest.
For me though, it’s a fitting end to the body of work that Cash recorded throughout his life and I’m glad I bought it, even though sometimes it makes me suicidal.
Final Verdict: 6/10