One of the more striking similarities between the apparently disparate genres of hip-hop and country- along with OCD levels of God-praising, drug-abuse and mother complexes – is the preoccupation with meeting one’s maker, settling scores and being -ready to die’, as one Christopher Wallace once proclaimed, a parallel that surely drew Def Jam co-founder and producer extraordinaire, Rick Rubin, to reinvent Johnny Cash for Generation X, with the American Recordings series.
If Notorious B.I.G. loaded his LPs with rhymes toying with the idea of shuffling off this mortal coil, then the American Recordings series is surely country music’s version of what was/is one of hip-hop’s main obsessions, alongside fat asses, hydroponic weed and expensive watches. The spectre of death has hung heavily over all six of these Rick Rubin-produced albums, as well as the weighty Unearthed box set, and when it comes to stories of drugs, booze, hell-raising, mortality, redemption, re-invention and love, Johnny Cash’s tale is as gripping as that of any rapper.
In this, the second posthumous release from the American Recordings series, he takes on another handful of covers, some less surprising than others, and even throws in an original – -I Corinthians 15:55′ – his first for some years. While previous album, A Hundred Highways, was seen at the time to be the full-stop on this series, it would be easy to dismiss Ain’t No Grave as a cashing-in add-on after the fact – but thankfully Johnny had a few gems left in him.
His versions of Tom Paxton’s -Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound’ and the title track – originally penned by Pentecostal preacher, Brother Claude Ely – would have been wasted left on the cutting room floor of the A Hundred Highways sessions from which this album was made. Here, Cash’s voice has the cracked fragility of a man mere months from death and the arrangements are almost Spartan, as if anything more would have been an intrusion as Mr Cash made his way into the arms of the Lord he so often sang about.
In particular, the title track is a standout, as the spirit of the Cash of yesteryear is present and correct, promising us he’s too tough for the tomb. He slurs his way melancholically through Sheryl Crow’s -Redemption Day’ in a song that sounds as if it was written especially for him, and he calls -pon Death himself on -I Corinthians 15:55′. Another grizzled hero of the country scene, and a man who just last year released another solo album, Kris Kristofferson’s award-winning -For The Good Times’ is delivered with style by Cash, bringing the best out of his vocals, the familiarity of the song perhaps awakening something of the 1970s in him.
Of the last few years recording with Cash, Rick Rubin said it was his job to have musicians ready on the days Johnny was well enough to record, which grew fewer as his end drew closer. It didn’t hurt that he was able to call, effectively as session players, such hardened and experienced musicians as the Avett Brothers, Matt Sweeney, and a pair of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers in the form of Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench. The subtlety of the music, practically bereft of percussion, properly puts the Man In Black front and centre and although this is an album of material that didn’t make it onto A Hundred Highways, it is certainly no clutch of cast-offs.
This, alongside the previous album, is as fitting a goodbye as one could want and Rubin says it is here he says goodbye to the American Recordings series. Ending with -Aloha Oe’, an old song from Honolulu penned by the final monarch of the Kingdom of Hawaii, it is perhaps fitting to hear the last true king of country bid us farewell in such a composed and cool manner, fully prepared to join his beloved June in heaven. As he says himself, as the album draws to a close: until we meet again.