Four years after the stellar American Recordings V: A Hundred Highways, and seven years after Johnny’s death, comes American Recordings VI: Ain’t No Grave. It’s a relatively short affair, at a full time of 32:21, but that hardly matters when you have quality like this.
Ain’t No Grave (Gonna Hold This Body Down), credited as a traditional but also to Claude Ely, is absolutely haunting. It stomps, it menaces, and when those chains start singing it gets damn right spooky.
Redemption Day, a Sheryl Crow track, is also stark and full of power. Funny, I own the Crow album from which this track originates, but I don’t remember her version. All I can hear, when I think of it, is this one. All deference, Sheryl. When Johnny repeats “Freedom… freedom…” at the end, you feel it.
For The Good Times is a Kris Kristofferson song, of course, and this version is a pretty acoustic guitar run-through. Loved it.
I Corinthians 15:55, a Cash original based on the titular bible verse, “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?”, is a spiritual tune (of course) that sort of sounded, in places, like that old kids tune “oh dear what can the matter be?” It’s not a bad thing, and it’s not note for note. Cash sounds really frail, here.
Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound (a Tom Paxton tune), is yet another pretty guitar/piano tune, this time about searching in your life. This one hits home. The organ adds just the right feel.
A Satisfied Mind (by Hayes/Rhodes, originally recorded by Porter Wagoner), is one of those age-old tunes that never loses its feel. This Johnny/guitar version is exactly as it should be. The feel is definitely there, on this one.
I Don’t Hurt Anymore (Robertson/Rollins, also recorded by Hank Snow and Dinah Washington) has that old feel (the original was the 50s), and though it’s a slow waltz, it feels uplifting. I love the piano and guitar solos.
Cool Water (a Bob Nolan tune) is, here, a brilliant acoustic guitar song. You can feel the water yourself, as Johnny sings. Now that’s power.
Last Night I Had The Strangest Dream (an Ed McCurdy tune) is just gorgeous. Love the solos. It has that spiritual feel to it, whether it was meant to or not.
Aloha Oe (written by Queen Lili’uokalani in 1877) has that island feel, through the Johnny country filter. It’s an interesting (and fitting) album ender. It’s also the end of the series, and this track handles that easily, as well. But Aloha also means hello as much as it means goodbye (Hawaiians only have the one word for both), and that’s when, again, this album gets a little spooky.
Many returning players here from the previous editions, like Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench (Heartbreakers), Jonny Polonski, and so on. New additions are Seth and Scott Avett (Avett Brothers).
What this album is, though, as I said above, is spooky. The song selection here, the running order, the lyrical content… it all adds up to Johnny’s voice from beyond the grave and it’s really, really affecting. This is one of the most powerful records I’ve heard in a long, long time. Holy. Shit. This was awesome.
And that’s the end of the American Recordings as we own them currently. I am well aware of the 5CD boxed set that’s out there, called Unearthed, which contained 4 CDs of previously unreleased tracks from the sessions that made up the American Recordings series, as well as a 1CD set of Greatest Hits from the series. Mike, this is tops on my Taranna list, this year. If I see it for a decent price, I will buy it so fast the clerk’s head will spin. If we do not see it in Taranna, I will be ordering it online when we get home. It is also on my Grail List to which everyone here on the KMA has access in the Pluggery post at the top of the KMA main page. This boxed set HAS TO be in our collection. Simply put, I need more of this incredible Cash/Rubin collaboration. 6 CDs was not enough for me. This stuff is THAT good.
I have been LOVING this series. These American Recordings CDs are bloody gorgeous. And here we have a fifth volume? Oh man, let’s go!
Help Me (a Larry Gatlin song) is a beautiful guitar and vocal track with perfect cello accompaniment. It’s haunting and a little sinister, while he begs for help. Amazing.
God’s Gonna Cut You Down, a traditional, has this great foot-stomp-hand clap beat as the guitar noodles bluesily and Johnny spreads his warnings. Superb.
Like The 309 starts out with a plaintive Johnny intro, then the blues acoustic guitars and a light drum tap takes over. This is gorgeous. I liked this so much I played it twice in a row. Could I play it, like, 309 times? Sure. Soberingly, this is also the last song Cash ever wrote before he passed away.
If You Could Read My Mind sees Johnny gently singing this classic Gordon Lightfoot track, as an acoustic guitar picks a bit and the piano lays down a cushion of chords. Beautiful.
Further On (Up The Road), a Bruce Springsteen song, manages to somehow sound simultaneously happy and sad. It’s blues, country, roots Johnny at his best.
On The Evening Train, a Hank Williams song is, here, a pretty acoustic and piano track. It sounds so simple, but you have to know it isn’t. Johnny injects this with a lot of feeling and beauty.
I Came To Believe is a song Cash wrote for these sessions, and it’s a really pretty spiritual-style track, arpeggiating guitar and strings holding it all together. He sings this with soul.
Love’s Been Good To Me (a Rod McKuen track) is another total winner. It’s just going through old girlfriends (if they even existed) and saying how love had made life better. Beautiful arrangement, the strings give it lift, the guitar and piano give it a strong frame. This song’s lyrics also give the album its title.
A Legend In My Time (a Don Gibson track, also recorded by Roy Orbison) is one of those songs that has classic country lyrics. There’s humour masking pain, witty rhymes covering an open heart. Perfect.
Rose Of My Heart (by Hugh Moffatt) is a love song that gets a stunning rendition, here. And Johnny’s old, tired voice make it that much more emotional. Wow. You know, June died in 2003, and these songs were recorded in 2003 (released in 2006). It’s pretty easy to imagine Johnny was singing this one directly to June, either just before or just after she passed away. This is lump-in-your-throat material.
Four Strong Winds (an Ian Tyson track, of course) aches and lilts its way through a beautiful rendition. All the parts come together into a perfect whole.
I’m Free From The Chain Gang Now (Herscher/Klein) ends the album with aplomb. “There were tears on the mail Mother wrote me in jail, but I’m free from the chain gang now.”
Once again, a long and fine list of musicians added their talents to this record, many returning from previous instalments. Laura Cash, Randy Scruggs, Marty Stuart, Benmont Tench, and on and on with the great players here.
This posthumously-released record is superlative. Johnny does sound older here, now. He sounds tired. And rightfully so. But he’s still got so much to say. And he found the best possible way to do it.
Here we have the fourth instalment in the series.
It begins with Cash speaking a bit before starting up the excellent Cash original The Man Comes Around. I love the guitar part in this song. Such control, and then that lift, paired with the piano… oh hell yes.
And then comes an album centerpiece track, Cash’s cover of Trent Reznor (NIN)’s Hurt. This version absolutely kills. The video is phenomenal. Everything about this screams solid gold. It’s even the version I used to learn to play it on guitar.
Give My Love To Rose (which I knew from the Folsom Prison LP) is great, just Cash doing what he does best (to minimal accompaniment beyond his guitar). Cash won another Grammy for Best Country Male Vocal, for this one!
Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water is next. I don’t tend to like S&G, but Cash does alright with this song, for sure. It sounds like a church song, when he does it. Fiona Apple is listed on Wiki, is that her on this track? Could be.
I Hung My Head is a Sting song, and Cash takes it over for his own. His ability to sing like he’s story-telling is huge, here. First Time Ever I Saw Your Face (a Ewan MacColl song. MacColl is Kirsty MacColl’s father, and he was married to Peggy Seeger at one point too). This is a slow, beautiful song. It aches.
Up next is Depeche Mode’s Personal Jesus (with Red Hot Chili Pepper John Frusciante on guitar). I’m not much for the original, but this version does me just fine. Really bluesy!
Then we go into In My Life, of course, the Beatles tune. Not many people can cover the Beatles and do it this well. Hot damn.
Sam Hall, an old Tex Ritter tune, cracks me up every time. “Damn your eyes!” And from there we go straight into Danny Boy (set to Londonderry Air, as it is). It’s pretty easy to make this song cringe-worthy and overwrought. But Cash just makes it sound human. As always.
Desperado is, of course, the Eagles track. Don Henley adds vocals to this spare version. I loved it. I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry is a slow-waltz duet with Nick Cave. Gorgeous.
Tear Stained Letter, a Cash original, brings full band to the fore, and it’s a great dance tune. Loved the piano on this one. Up next is the old traditional, Streets Of Laredo. It a sweet version, very uplifting.
We’ll Meet Again has been done by (probably) everybody, it seems, but Cash’s version her is just excellent. I would use this for a movie credits, or the ending of a mixed tape. Love the guitar part, and then the clarinet kicks in… and those group vocals to end it… Easily a great track.
Solid fucking gold. WHAT A RECORD!
There are other great players here (not mentioned above). Some (if not all) of the Heartbreakers, Randy Scruggs, Marty Stuart and Billy Preston, to name only a few!
Seriously. This was awesome.
And away we go with American III, an absolute gem of a record. Wiki says his health had been declining between II and III, a period of four years, but I don’t hear much in his voice to betray it.
Starting the album off with the defiant I Won’t Back Down, on which Cash gives a perfect rendition (with backing vocals and organ playing from Tom Petty). The song sounds built for Cash. Straight from there into an excellent cover of Neil Diamond’s Solitary Man (also featuring Tom Petty on vocals). This track won him a Best Male Country Vocal Performance Grammy. Oh yes.
The old chestnut That Lucky Old Sun (Just Rolls Around Heaven All Day) is a lovely acoustic guitar/piano run-through. With the same set-up, he next tackles U2’s One and effortlessly makes it his own. The original is a classic, but this one has a different (and completely pleasing) soul all on its own.
Nobody is an old Egbert Williams track from 1906, but again it’s perfectly chosen for Cash. So great. Then it’s Will Oldham’s I See A Darkness (with Oldham joining in on vocals) and, once again, it’s gorgeous. I seem to be writing that about each track, but it’s so true!
Like now, it’s Nick Cave’s Mercy Seat. My goodness! How can you not just adore this record? Fantastic! Would You Lay With Me (In A Field Of Stone) is a David Allan Coe song, first recorded by Tanya Tucker. It has that old-time spiritual-style feel. Lovely.
Field Of Diamonds is a track Cash made with Waylon Jennings in 1986. Here it features June Carter Cash and Sheryl Crow on vocals. At first I was concerned Crow would muck up that ageless duo, but she comports herself well enough. I liked it.
Next come two Cash originals, Before My Time and Country Trash, both of which recall the first record in the series. Just Johnny and an acoustic guitar, sounding like he’s right here in the living room with us. I loved it.
Mary Of The Wild Moor was a Dennis Turner song, recorded by the Louvin Brothers. Cash easily does it justice, with a bit of swing, a bit of a celtic feel, and some country too, of course. I loved the violin from Laura Cash, here. And hey, that’s Sheryl Crow on accordion! Yes, you read that correctly.
I’m Leaving Now is a Cash original. This version is a total gem, with Cash and Merle Haggard trading vocals. Haggard also adds guitar to this track, and Laura Cash rips a great violin solo too. Hot damn.
And lastly, the old traditional Wayfaring Stranger brings this incredible record to a satisfying close. This is a highlight track, that violin, and hey! Sheryl Crow on accordion again. They just nailed this one.
Other players throughout this record (not mentioned above) include the Heartbreakers, Marty Stuart, and Randy Scruggs. So much goodness, here.
I loved I and II, and I’ve loved III, as well. What a series!
Reuniting four years after their first collaboration, Cash and Rubin offer up a second album of late-era Cash greatness. Lucky us!
Unlike American Recordings, which featured just Johnny and his guitar, Unchained includes a band, and it’s a welcome thing. We already had a stripped down record, this adds new dimensions while still sounding completely great. And why? Because it’s Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers backing him, THAT’S WHY! It’s also notable that Marty Stuart played guitar on 8 of the songs, here. Damn.
Rowboat (a Beck song) chugs along prettily, with lots of fun little instrumental solos. I love Sea Of Heartbreak (originally a hit for Don Gibson), the pacing, the harmonies, the piano line. All of it. Adding to that opinion, surely, is the appearance of Lindsey Buckingham and Mick Fleetwood (of Fleetwood Mac).
I first heard Johnny’s cover of Soundgarden’s Rusty Cage on a CMJ New Music Sampler CD many years ago, and I thought it was a fantastic reimagining. I still thought that listening to it again now, what a great track! Up next is The One Rose (That’s Left In My Heart), an old Jimmie Rodgers tune, a lovely waltz all around. Beautiful!
Country Boy is pure stomping blues country, with healthy doses of the old Sun records sound (because he recorded it for Sun in 1957). Yes! Yes! Yes! Memories Are Made Of This was a hit for Dean Martin. Here, it’s just such a happy little tune, impossible not to be buoyed by it.
Spiritual (a Spain song) is a very slow, well, spiritual tune, a plea to Jesus. This song features Flea on bass, but it could’ve been anybody (nothing to distinguish him, by sound), honestly. Up next is the Kneeling Drunkard’s Plea (written by the Carter family and a hit for the Louvin Brothers), is great, pure country.
Southern Accents is (of course), the Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers song. Makes sense, given the band playing with him, here. And this is a great version, a perfect song selection. Great! Then Mean Eyed Cat comes steaming in with that old Sun sound again. I defy you to refrain from tapping your foot or even full-on dancing to this one. Fun!
Meet me In Heaven is another Cash original. It builds slowly but still keeps things fairly gentle, another spiritual-style track. I Never Picked Cotton, a Roy Clark song, chugs along brightly, and the subject matter is built for Cash. In other words, awesome.
Unchained is a Jude Johnstone song, a ballad with prominent piano and strings. I know there’s one more coming, but this track would have been a fantastic album closer! Instead, we get I’ve Been Everywhere (a hit for Lucky Starr, and Hank Snow). It’s a fun blues jumper, and a mouthful, lyrics-wise. Still, I think I would have switched these last two tracks around, in the running order. But nobody ever asks me.
This is a brilliant record. To have Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers as your “backing band” is a helluva thing, because they play so well, it’s glorious. The song selection is impeccable, and Johnny sounds like he’s having a blast making the record he wanted to make. And that, of course, was what this series was all about.
I love the music of Johnny Cash.
Just getting that out there at the start of this series.
And for whatever you may think of Rick Rubin and his talents and approaches, we all must endlessly bless him for stripping back all the extra crap and just cleanly recording Johnny with an acoustic guitar.
I swear, this album sounds like Johnny’s right here in my living room, playing these songs just for me. It’s awesome. And of course it sounds like that – Rubin recorded the Man In Black playing the songs on this album in his own living room!
Johnny sounds older, maybe a little tired, but not bad. Wiki says this is his 81st album, and with the life he’d lived to that point, one would certainly understand.
The songs here are a treasure trove:
Delia’s Gone, which I think is a traditional tune(?) is just a brutal song. Seriously. That poor woman! All only made the more harrowing by Cash’s presentation. Next up is a Cash original, Let the Train Blow The Whistle and it’s gorgeous. Nick Lowe’s The Beast In Me is another surefire track, as is Cash’s own Drive On.
Kris Kristofferson’s Why Me Lord is right in Cash’s wheelhouse, and Thirteen (penned for Cash by Glenn Danzig in just twenty minutes) is really great. It’s the edit version – the full version is on the Unearthed boxed set. Oh, Bury Me Not (Introduction: A Cowboy’s Prayer) comes from the Lomaxes, so you know it’s a solid tune rooted in tradition. Johnny owns it.
Leonard Cohen’s Bird On A Wire is a great, straight version, true to the original. Normally I say only Leonard can (and should) sing Leonard, but this is Johnny and so it’s all OK. The Jimmy Driftwood-penned Tennessee Stud was recorded live at the Viper Room (owned at the time by Johnny Depp) and is a very good run-through. Tom Waits wrote Down There By The Train for Cash, and while Cash’s version is pure Cash, I can also totally hear Waits doing it. [And you can too, it’s on Waits’ mind-blowing Orphans set].
Two Cash-penned tunes, Redemption, and Like A Soldier are next. Both are excellent. Man, I’m writing that a lot. But it’s so true! This is how Johnny was meant to be heard, and the song selections are just so great!
And rounding out the record is The Man Who Couldn’t Cry (live), a bit of a goof track, just listing all the crap that happened to a man who couldn’t cry. It’s funny once, but I might have left it off.
In sum: A near-as-dammit perfect record, the way Cash was meant to be heard. A cornerstone for any collection. So essential, it goes without saying.