The second posthumous record and final offering from Johnny Cash's American Recordings series sees the late great king of country music explore notions of mortality and salvation with a selection of poignant and carefully chosen songs.
With the help of producer Rick Rubin, during the latter part of his career Johnny Cash's American Recordings series saw him win the heart of a new generation, taking on covers of country, pop and rock stars alike. He released four American Recordings albums before his death, a fifth posthumously, and now comes the sixth and final piece, recorded just a few short months before Cash's death in 2003.
Themes of death and redemption are lamentably omnipresent. Understandable, considering Cash had recently lost his wife, June Carter Cash, and was himself in questionable health, but it does give the eerie sense that he knew his time on this earth was nearly up. Opening the album is a solemn take on Brother Claude Ely's most famous song, 'Ain't No Grave', which could easily be the soundtrack for a cowboy on his way to an unwinnable shoot-out. The theme is continued on Sheryl Crow's 'Redemption Day', as Cash sings "There is a train that's heading straight to heaven's gate" among solid piano chords and sombre violins. Considering the context, this is powerful stuff, if a tad morbid.
'First Corinthians' is the only Cash original among these ten tracks, an ambling tune underpinned by bare piano and simply plucked guitar. Cash has a wonderful ability to transcend his genre by paring songs back to their bare bones, but the truth is, there are songs here that will challenge those with an aversion to country and western. Kris Kristofferson's 'For The Good Times' rambles slightly, while slide guitar maintains a country flavour on the Hawaiian tinged 'Aloha Oe'.
There's no doubting the emotional sincerity of Ain't No Grave. Only the hardest of hearts could be left untouched by it. Still, if you're not a Cash or country fan, repeated listening may be off the cards for this one.