There’s no doubt about it, at least not in my mind – the collaboration between Johnny Cash and Rick Rubin is one of the great stories in the history of American music. Off the top of my head, I really can’t think of a parallel – a great artist in the twilight of his career, pretty much given up on by his record company, coupled with a producer who tells him “just play what you want, and we’ll see what happens.” Which leads to a 10-year partnership that results in four great albums, one great box set, a surge in popularity among all age groups, and, oh yeah – some of the best work of his long and storied career. As far as I know, it had never happened before, and we can only hope that someday it will happen again.
With the release of “American VI: Ain’t No Grave,” we can now add to that list, two worthy, posthumously released albums.
It’s not really fair to compare “Ain’t No Grave” to the albums that Cash and Rubin released before Johnny’s death in 2003. The box set, “Unearthed,” made clear that for every 14-16 songs released on each of the “American” albums, there were twice as many that, for one reason or another, didn’t quite make the cut. So we really have no way of knowing whether the songs on “Ain’t No Grave” would have made the cut or not. And after all, the album is barely 30 minutes long.
But in the end, none of that really matters. What matters is the chance, this one last time, to hear Johnny Cash singing songs that we haven’t heard him sing before – whether it’s an old traditional, an old Kris Kristofferson tune, a famous Hawaiian ballad, or the last original song that he wrote. We should feel lucky to have the opportunity, even as we feel sad that this will be the last one.