Johnny never had the best voice, but his tone is beautiful to our ears; he never played a complex chord arrangement, but his songs are classics. What separates a Johnny Cash song from that of a music prodigy is the soul behind the words and the guitar. When you hear a cover preformed by Johnny it almost sounds like it was meant for him but only found its way through the hand r artist’s pen. Take “Rose of My Heart,” my wife was gracious to give my our first dance as a married couple to the aging voice of Mr. Cash and a tired 6 string. This song was not written by John, nor was he the first to reinvent its lovely melody, but of the dozen who have tried in 30 years his incorporation is the most fitting. That said, John was not a great musician, John was not a great guitar player, but he had the attitude of a gunslinger and the soul of a saint and that is what made his fans adore his music for the past 50 years.
Cash’s latest and final original recording was released February 23rd just days from his 78th birthday. While we may see new compilations and maybe even an unreleased recording in the years and decades to come, this is Johnny’s last time sitting on a stool in front of a recording mic before he joined his wife June in the great stage in the sky. Much like the previous album A Hundred Highways Cash labors to keep his breath in many songs and shares the angst and pain in what was once a great booming tone in his voice. While some may see this as a declining skill I feel just the opposite, his previous album and this new release both share his soul and knowing mortality in his voice. To hear him struggle during “Help Me” pleading with God for assistance to make it through the simplest of tasks and backed by a great string set it nearly brings a tear to your eye.
The album opens fittingly with, “Ain’t No Grave” and it’s truly fitting intro “Well there ain’t no grave/Gonna hold my body down/When I hear that trumpet sound/I’m gonna get up out of the ground.” While John continues to lay buried in body, his words still continue to find their way to our ears, hearts and soul. The crashing of chains sounds reminiscent of a poor tired Ghost of Christmas Past carrying his heavy burdensome chains to atone for his misgivings.
While this reads more like a sermon for Johnny’s spirituality in his music then a music review of his content I offer no apologies. Most of Cash’s later in life music rang the remnants of a gospel song and many were just that, his music his not only a song, for some it is a gateway to spirituality and a way to speak to God. If it was good for the Man in Black it is good for me.
When Johnny sat down with Rick Rubin to record the American series it was always his intention to close out his final album with the folk Hawaiian tune “Aloha Oe” and his request was granted with it closes the chapter on Cash American which included 6 studio albums and a 4 disc box set. While John’s old classic may be far more famous and familiar to fans the 10 discs of material that was created by at the time what was considered a washed up Country Singer and an ever-changing producer became in my opinion the greatest works of not only his life, but by any artist.
Thank you Rick Rubin for giving us this final album and thank you for taking the chance to help reinvent the music of Johnny Cash. What you gave us was the wisdom and heart of a man who still had so much to share. While this offers little into the quality of this installment I don’t think a fan needs convincing to pick it up, just a reminder that it is released. A music critic may listen to the songs and say they sound labored and weak, but they would only be fooling themselves. When you are 17 and you give your first “I love you” to your high school sweetheart it has a different meaning then that of your final “I love you” to your spouse of 40 years. This is John’s final “I love you” to all who have shared his dream.