Saturday, April 10, 2010
A Fitting Exit For A Musical Giant
Honestly I am not a huge fan of Johnny Cash's "American" recordings as a whole or at least I wasn't. The Cash voice which was never great to begin with had faded with the times and Johnny's American recordings to me were often average at best and painful at worst. I figured the overwhelmingly positive critical reviews were either sympathy or going away presents to a man whose true musical legacy can't be measured.
But after listening to the 6th and last American recording Ain't No Grave I wonder if just possibly it was me that didn't get it. As I mentioned earlier Johnny Cash never had the best voice in business. With Cash it was always about much more than the voice. It was about the man so judging his final recordings on the fading quality of something that
never really told the whole story was a mistake I should have known better than to make when talking about Johnny Cash. And it's with the voice that I will begin my review of this his last studio CD. The voice for lack of a better term is gone. Listening to Ain't No Grave you get the unmistakable feeling you are listening to man who doesn't have long to live going out on his own terms. If not handled correctly the fading quality of cash's voice could have lead to an embarrassing record very easily. Not only is Ain't No Grave not an embarrassing record because of Cash's voice it is in fact greatly improved by Cash's voice. and for that the credit must go not only to Cash but to Rick Rubin for the sparse arrangements and the selection of songs that make this such a surprisingly enjoyable CD.
The CD opens with the title track and then Cash sings Sheryl Crow's Redemption Day. Honestly if I had my way the Names Johnny Cash and Sheryl Crow would never go together but who am I to judge a legend? (And I don't mean Crow) Then Johnny Cash joins the likes of Ray Price, Elvis Presley, Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra by recording Kris Kristofferson's For The Good Times. The fact that those names I have mentioned have sang the song attests to the quality of Kristofferson's composition and Cash's version is very much in their league.
From here Cash sings his own composition I Corinthians 15:55 which makes it clear Cash didn't fear his coming passing and Tom Paxton's Can't Help Wondering Where I am Bound. Dealing with death is the reoccurring theme of the album. Cash then sings 3 longtime Country Music standards. Red Foley/ Porter Wagoner's Satisfied Mind, Hank Snow's I Don't Hurt Anymore and The Sons Of The Pioneers Cool Water. The first song stating the opinion that money has little effect on mental well being, the second is about a man of no longer hurts for his lost love, and the third about how the devil can tempt a needing man with mirages. All are handled exceedingly well here.
The CD closes with the Anti-War song Last Night I Had The Strangest Dream which Cash also sang in his Live At Madison Square Garden CD which was recorded in 1969. The Closing number is Hawaiian Aloha Oe which stretches Cash's remaining voice to it's admittedly very much reduced limit.
Admittedly I bought Ain't No Grave as a lifetime achievement award and a way to say thank you to one of the absolute legends of a music I have loved my entire life. I didn't figure it would leave much of an impact on me but it very much did. Now I may have to give the other American Recordings that I have shied away from in the past a listen to see if the Cash magic is there even when at times the Cash voice is failing. I suspect I will find that to be the case. About the cover art. The Picture of Johnny Cash as a child on the front is a nice touch but the almost silhouette like shadow of him looking out the corner of a window as an old man is kinda creepy.
Ain't No Grave ****/*****