Johnny Cash was already a legend when he met producer Rick Rubin, but what the two of them did together is, well, indescribable. The last four albums Cash released in his lifetime are the best recordings he ever created. Tom Petty once said the best Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers album ever is Unchained, the second Cash album produced by Rubin where the Heartbreakers sat in as the backup band.
After The Man In Black died in 2004, Rubin released a fifth album that was very good but didn't quite live up to the previous standards. Tuesday the sixth "American" project arrived, with Rubin promising this is the last he'll be associated with. Amazingly, American VI: Ain't No Grave does not sound like the last decent scraps from the pile.
When the three then-surviving Beatles cobbled "Free As A Bird" together around an old John Lennon demo tape, a friend of mine said it was comforting to hear a new Beatles song again. That's the feeling that this new Cash-Rubin collaboration evokes.
The title song is perfect for Cash to release after his death, after a long and often defiant life: "Ain't no grave gonna hold this body down." And all of the tracks are about endings, most of them covers given the unique Johnny Cash treatment. From Sheryl Crow's "Redemption Day" to "Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream" and including an original tune called "I Corinthians 15:55" ("O death, where is your sting?"), the album is a fitting valedictory. And "Aloha Oe" is a wistful and perfect song with which to close.
Johnny Cash was already a legend when he started working with Rick Rubin. But he could have become a legend just on the basis of these six albums (and don't forget Unearthed, the five-disk set that includes a few dozen great cuts that weren't quite great enough to make the "American" projects).
I had all sorts of ambitious plans for my day off Tuesday, but I spent the afternoon with Mr. Cash instead, listening to the new album twice and the first two American recordings in between. There never was an interpreter of songs like Johnny Cash, and no one brought out the best of Cash like Rick Rubin.