Three-and-a-Half Stars out of Five
The most casual fan of Johnny Cash is likely familiar with the iconic picture of him flashing a defiant middle finger into the camera. (For those of you not familiar with the photo, it’s available as a t-shirt or poster on Amazon – get ‘em for the kiddies!) Think of American VI: Ain’t No Grave, the last installment in the amazing Rick Rubin-produced American series, as the audio version of that famous picture, with the target of Johnny’s furious finger being none other than the Grim Reaper.
Recorded after the loss of his beloved June, and knowing that he was nearing the end of his own life, American VI finds The Man in Black staring straight into the eyes of death with a mix of defiance and satisfied acceptance. The title track kicks things off, a traditional tune that taunts the inevitable with the lines:
Can hold my body down
When I hear that trumpet sound
Gonna rise right outta the ground
The beat is a death march, marked by the sound of chains, and the effect is chilling. It’s as if Johnny has risen up, giving us this album as a reminder that the music will live on. Amen to that.
Of the remaining nine songs on the disc, only one is an original. I Corinthians 15:55 is the last song Johnny would write. The singer accepts his fate with eyes wide open, and a heart filled with anticipation of a brighter existence on the horizon:
Hope springs eternal
Just over the rise
When I see my redeemer
Elsewhere, as on the other American discs, Johnny covers some of the great songs and songwriters of our time, at once looking back on his life, and looking forward to what lay ahead. He reminisces about love lost (For The Good Times), wishes for a world without war (Last Night I Had The Strangest Dream, Redemption Day), and chronicles the lament of the drifter (I Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound). Time may have ravaged that famous voice, but Johnny sings strong and steady throughout it all.
The disc closes with a languid version of Aloha Oe, Queen Lili`uokalani’s song of farewell between two lovers, which serves as Johnny’s poignant goodbye to us all.
Aloha `oe, aloha `oe (Farewell to you, farewell to you)
E ke onaona noho i ka lipo (The charming one who dwells in the shaded bowers)
One fond embrace,
A ho`i a`e au (‘Ere I depart)
Until we meet again
Country’s king is gone, but he will not be forgotten. Amen to that, too.