Album Review

Eamon Murphy

Here's a scary fact: There have been more Johnny Cash compilation albums released than the combined total of his studio and live albums.

American VI: Ain’t No Grave is actually the 7th and (hopefully) final chapter in a series of releases from sessions with the American Recordings label.

Now I should probably clarify. I have a hell of a lot of respect for Johnny Cash. No one artist can claim more credit for bringing country music to the masses, and his place amongst the music legends of the last century is built on solid foundations with which one cannot argue.

So why would any music aficionado hope that this is the last we’re going to hear from the Man in Black?

I wouldn’t for even a moment claim the American sessions have produced nothing of worth. After all, we’re talking about a series of albums that began with as fine an interpretation as Cash made of Tom Waits’s ‘Down There By The Train’, and has reached high points such as ‘I Won’t Back Down’, and the self-penned ‘When The Man Comes Around’.

Want to discover a new found respect for Sting as a lyricist? Just listen to ‘I Hung My Head’ from American IV.

But to get there, one has to wade through an awful lot of songs that range in quality from the bland to the just plain bad, and my cynicism is fueled further by the extent to which Cash’s popularity has exploded and been consequently exploited since his death in 2003.

The earlier, and arguably superior, American recordings stalled well outside the top 100 of the U.S. charts. But due to a natural and simple-minded morbidity in all of us, it seems that as time went on, and the more Johnny looked and sounded like a dying man, the more people wanted to hear what he was singing about.

The albums that followed his death (or were released around the time of it) either went platinum or gold. They included Unearthed, the first serious effort from the label to cash in the singer’s surge in popularity, by releasing pretty much the same material as was included in his previous four albums, packaged sufficiently differently to allow people to buy it again.

Here’s a scary fact: There has been more Johnny Cash compilation albums released than the combined total of his studio and live albums. And we’re not talking an insignificant number either. Cash is already on the road to becoming another Tupac or Jeff Buckley, where every note or lyric, cough or sneeze captured in a studio is re-mixed or re-packaged, and released and re-released ad nauseum in an effort to milk every penny from completist fans.

What’s worse is that a series of albums that started out as a collection of fine interpretations of folk, country, pop, rock and blues classics almost degenerated into a procession of dross covers with supposed spiritual significance.

It looked for a while as if any song that could be interpreted as having a Christian theme, or sounded like it referred to “meeting up on the other side”, (here, read Johnny’s reunion with June) was being given the Cash treatment, as Rick Rubin’s label played off the record-buying public’s fascination with Cash’s faith and frailty on songs like ‘Hurt’, ‘Personal Jesus’, ‘Further On Up The Road’ and posthumously (of course) ‘I Don’t Hurt Anymore’.

Progressively, the albums relied more and more on the singer’s well known religious beliefs and impending mortality to evoke sentiment. Even in his final years, Cash’s talent was worthy of better treatment.

But I’ve digressed. Even though it’s not as strong as some of its predecessors, American VI presents the perfect opportunity to go out on a high note, before any barrels are scraped. There’s plenty to admire on this latest installment, not least in the title track, even if it could be held up as a perfect case in point of what I’ve been complaining about. (And you can bet it was no accident that ‘Aint No Grave’ was saved for release until after the artist’s death). It’s hard to imagine a banjo sounding more haunting than it does here, complemented as it is by pounding footsteps and rattling chains.

‘Redemption Day’ is another highlight. Cash’s whispered drawl gives the lyrics a significance that Sheryl Crow would never have managed in her original, thanks to the perfectly sparse use of a harpsichord accompanying the guitar track.

‘Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound’ and Kris Kristofferson’s ‘For The Good Times’ are two more that would be worthy of inclusion on any album from the great man, but there is still at least a couple of tracks here that should probably never have seen the light of day, but were called on to make up the numbers.

Like the rest of the albums in the series, there’s sufficient quality here to make listening worthwhile, unless Johnny Cash really isn’t your cup of tea. And if you’ve enjoyed the previous records, you’ll certainly get a lot from listening to the latest installment too. Let’s hope they decide to stop while that’s still the case.