Johnny Cash’s Last Album
The implied agency of this Reuters headline is amusing: “Johnny Cash releasing another posthumous album.” Someone’s releasing the album, but I’m pretty sure it’s not Johnny.
More than six years after his death, Johnny Cash will return to record stores next month with a new album featuring one of the last songs the country legend ever wrote.
“American VI: Ain’t No Grave,” billed as the final installment in a series of comeback recordings overseen by producer Rick Rubin, will be released on February 26, the 78th anniversary of Cash’s birth, said a spokeswoman for Rubin.
As with its predecessors, “Ain’t No Grave” is heavy on acoustic covers, including tunes written by Sheryl Crow and Kris Kristofferson as well as a gospel number previously covered by Bob Dylan. Cash himself contributed, “I Corinthians: 15:55,” a song he wrote during his last three years. He died on September 12, 2003 after years of poor health, and just four months after his wife, June Carter Cash. In 2006, he topped the U.S. pop album chart with “American V: A Hundred Highways.”
The “American Recordings” series kicked off in 1994 after Rubin rescued Cash from a creative and commercial lull. Their critically acclaimed collaborations garnered six Grammys and delivered a whole new generation of fans enticed by mournful covers of tunes by the likes of Beck, Nick Cave, Neil Diamond and Depeche Mode. His biggest success was with Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt,” whose heartbreaking video served as a final farewell.
The track listing for “Ain’t No Grave” includes Crow’s “Redemption Day” and Kristofferson’s “For The Good Times,” as well as Joe “Red” Hayes and Jack Rhodes’ “A Satisfied Mind,” the opening track on Dylan’s unloved 1980 album “Saved.” Cash also covered Tom Paxton’s “Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound,” Bob Nolan’s “Cool Water,” and Queen Lili’uokalani’s “Aloha Oe.” He dusted off Ed McCurdy’s anti-war “Last Night I had the Strangest Dream,” which also appears on his 1969 concert recording “At Madison Square Garden.”
The resurgence of interest in Cash’s work has been truly remarkable. He was a superstar in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. He was a has-been in the 1980s. And then he had a modest rival in the early 1990s that steamrolled.
And he’s arguably more popular now than ever. He’s truly appreciated as an artist and selling records like crazy. And, of course, the 2005 theatrical film “Walk the Line” was not only a huge box office success but critically acclaimed as well.
As with Elvis, death may have been a shrewd career move.
I’d quibble with the “has been” designation. Cash was, like Ray Charles, basically an institution even when he wasn’t in the country top 40. I don’t think Cash ever performed dive bars or casinos. Moreover, the Highwaymen recordings and concerts (with Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson) were quite successful in the late 1980s, before the Rick Rubin series of recordings originated.
Cash is definitely moving up on Jimi Hendrix and Tupac Shakur regarding the incessant posthumous releases. I don’t mind them per se so much as the particular recordings. While good, even essential, they over-emphasize the goth aspect of Cash’s persona. His output (e.g., “A Boy Named Sue”) was much more complex and varied than that.
The Rick Rubin recordings certainly did boost Johnny’s popularity with a new generation who hadn’t heard of him.
That said, I wasn’t a really big fan of those sessions, so this news doesn’t get me too excited.
I thought the first two American Recordings were some of the best albums he’d recorded. The third left me kind of cold.
I think part of his resurgence was similar to his second wave of popularity around the time of his TV show; he was interacting with younger performers, getting new ideas and leveraging on their younger fanbase. The downside IMHO were increasingly what appeared to be covers directed to the younger fans (US, NIN, & Petty) and less essential to Cash’s interpretation.
I passed on Five, with the video showing him dying amid the clutter of his past, they seemed to be taking a turn towards performance art of death. Most popular album, IIRC, since his prison albums in the 60s. I wanted to look away, a lot of people didn’t.
In addition, “Million Dollar Quartet” is keeping his name out there with good company.