By 2003, Johnny Cash had already suffered a lifetime of pain and loss. As a boy, heíd witnessed the suffering of his brother Jack after a gruesome table-saw accident, and later saw his life and marriage whirl out of control due to drug addiction and infidelity. But the legendary Man in Black never felt deeper despair than when his soul mate, June Carter Cash, died that May.
In the hours following Juneís death, Cash spoke to producer Rick Rubin, who had been recording him for 10 years. In discussing his agony, his message to Rubin was clear: Keep me working. Keep me recording and singing and making music. Because if I sit around dwelling on Juneís death, I will die.
In those awful hours following June Carter Cashís death, Rubin asked Cash if he thought heíd be able to find his faith.
The producer has compared that moment ó Cashís answer ó to the flick of a switch. In a voice as willful and steady as if answering to the Lord himself, the singer declared his faith ìunshakable.î From then on, the Man in Black, confined to a wheelchair and nearly devoid of sight, proceeded with a steady hand and a willful heart.
Cashís vocal frailty, combined with his unmistakable optimism and faith, make his final album with Rubin, ìAmerican VI: Ainít No Grave,î not just a collection of songs but a brilliant, heart-wrenching act of defiance and humanity.
ìHe had good days and bad days, mainly based on his level of physical pain and his ability to sing,î Rubin told The New York Post. ìBut when he sang well, he felt purposeful. He seemed to feel good after feeling he made progress with his art.î
The album, out on Friday ó which would have been Cashís 78th birthday ó hangs heavy with the weight of the troubadourís personal troubles. The title track opens the collection with an ominous, finger-picked acoustic guitar and Cashís weary baritone. When the beat kicks in, itís courtesy of a wooden box with a chain inside.
ìGabriel donít you blow your trumpet until you hear from me,î he sings. ìThere ainít no grave can hold my body down.î
Rubin and Cash met backstage at a concert in 1992. As Cash told ìFresh Airî in 1997, Rubin invited the singer to sit in his living room with just a guitar and two microphones, and ìsing to your heartís content everything you ever wanted to record.î
Their first album, 1994ís ìAmerican Recordings,î took shape over three weeks. With songs by writers as diverse as Kris Kristofferson, Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits and Nick Lowe, and a video starring Kate Moss, ìAmerican Recordingsî won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album and opened a surprising new chapter in Cashís storied career.
Over the next decade, the pair recorded anywhere from 30 to 80 songs each for five more albums, including some 60 tunes during the final year of Cashís life. Never starting with a plan, they experimented with unexpected songs choices.
For 1996ís ìUnchained,î Rubin suggested Soundgardenís ìRusty Cage,î but Cash was unable to get past singer Chris Cornellís howling heavy metal vocals. But the famed producer eventually persuaded Cash to focus on the lyrics, and his version dripped with a whiskey-soaked, hard-driving brand of countrified, donít-tread-on-me attitude.
It was during the recording of this album that Cash began feeling dizzy, or would sometimes be too tired to work. Thus began the battle with diabetes that would lead to his death just four months after June.
ìFaith made him strong. It was inspiring,î says Rubin. ìWe were friends and I loved him. Itís sad to see this chapter close, but it feels good to know the music lives on.î