American VI: Ain’t No Grave last in the series of Rick Rubin draws on a lifetime but is of that time for Johnny Cash
American VI: Aint No Grave was recorded between 2002 and 2003 when Johnny Cash’s health was fragile. During recording, he lost his wife in June 2003 from complications to a surgery. With patience and care, producer Rick Rubin was able to coax two CDs out of Cash. John Cash died in September 2003.
This is the last in the series. His voice and performance on American V: A Hundred Highways was strong and we have great hopes for this last CD.
In 2003, rock critic for the LA Times Robert Hilburn went to visit Johnny Cash in his home nestled in a Virginia valley below the Clinch Mountains where AP and Sara Carter grew up. Hilburn had met Johnny Cash in 1968 when he covered the historic Folsom Prison Concert. They remained friends through the decades that followed.
It was in this part of the country, where Virginia meets Tennessee, that AP Carter learned to merge the negro spirituals and blues forms with traditional hill music. Few people would think a white southerner would like “black” music but this was a tolerant part of the south with little racial tension, mainly because there were few blacks living in the area.
“A.P. Carter acknowledged that many of the songs he collected were taught to him by a black singer and guitarist from North Carolina named Leslie Riddle.” Americana Roots. Despite the problems it presented with Jim Crow laws, Carter and Riddle traveled together throughout the area looking for new songs.
The blend that AP Carter created became modern country music. Carter wasn’t the only white musician to borrow from the blues. Jimmy Rodgers the Singing Brakeman was dishing out the Mississippi Delta blues with a yodel and a twang back in the 20s. Bill Munroe, Buck Owens and Johnny Cash himself had strong black mentors. (from Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone? The Carter Family & Their Legacy in American Music )
Johnny Cash grew up in Arkansas listening to the Carter Family. Cash was star crossed to marry into the Carter family. He courted and won the hand of June Carter, daughter of Mother Maybelle Carter. June Carter was his life-long companion.
I learned Johnny Cash songs when trapped in a cottage with a record player and one country LP The Fabulous Johnny Cash when I was 12 years old. Whenever an audience gave me a blank stare after singing a Bob Dylan tune, I knew that summer spent memorizing I Still Miss Someone, Frankie and Johnnie and Cry Cry Cry had paid off. A Cash song thrown into almost any event is a crowd pleaser.
By 2003, both John at 73 and June Carter Cash were showing the signs of age. “It’s the asthma,” Johnny Cash told Hilburn. The first night of Hilburn’s visit, they went unannounced to a local barn dance sponsored by the Carter Family called the Carter Family Fold.
At the barn dance that night, the room exploded with cheers when John took the stage, and for a moment the magic was back. Joined by a three piece band, he opened with “Folsom Prison Blues” and his rich, deep voice was as strong as that day in 1968 at the prison. John’s voice remained commanding during “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” but he had shortness of breath on “Summertime” an obscure country song he recorded in the 1950s. Most of the fans were too excited to notice when he missed a word here or there, but June picked up on it and she took the microphone at the end of the number, giving John a rest. He rejoined her at the end of the song and the crowd roared once more. After their set, the Cashes retreated backstage for a few minutes before leaving the building.” from Corn Flakes with John Lennon by Robert Hilburn.
Cash was about to release his forth album with producer Rick Rubin. He feared it would be his last. His health was failing.
Rick Rubin had started working with Cash when Columbia dropped him and his career seemed over. The Highwaymen with Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings have revived his career for a short time but the early 90s were not good for old time country stars. New Country with mega-hit stars like Garth Brooks were running back and forth across stages bringing young people to county music. Not many people wanted to hear a big deep voice talk singing about the grit of shooting a man to watch him die in Reno.
Rubin brought new life to Cash’s music and a whole new younger audience. It revived Cash but now age and ill-health were not to be denied.
“I finished my last vocal for the record, and I shook hands with Rick and said ‘It’s been fun.’ I think it was my way of saying I understood if he wanted to call it quits. But he immediately asked what I wanted to do next. I mentioned the black gospel album and then I mentioned an album of songs that would show my musical roots, and Rick said ‘Let’s do them both.’
The quotes are from Robert Hilburn’s Corn Flakes with John Lennon: And Other Tales from a Rock ‘n’ Roll Life which I enjoyed reading for his personal reminiscences of rock and country stars. Hilburn has lots of material worth reading on John Cash, Bob Dylan and Lennon among other starts.
Here’s a video about John Cash from American V: A Hundred Highways.