There are several good things about “American VI: Ain’t No Grave” (American Recordings), the second posthumous release from Johnny Cash and the final page in Rick Rubin’s final-chapter reclamation project. The title song demonstrates admirable defiance in the face of death. Cash’s heartbreaking cover of Kris Kristofferson’s “For the Good Times” both recalls the passing of Cash’s wife, June Carter, and forecasts his own impending end. Cash is frail in voice, but strong in spirit. You couldn’t ask for a more dignified farewell.
You could, however, ask for a more accurate one. This volume is a stark reminder of how the Rubin years have shifted our sense of Cash, and not for the better. Rubin’s Cash has become an indelible character, an aged seer given to stark pronouncements on faith, love, and mortality. But he is also a poor representative of all the other Johnny Cashes—the one who drove the Tennessee Two through the boom-chicka-boom Sun singles, the historian of American song, the sometimes goofy “Old Golden Throat,” the prison activist, the Man in Black, the Highwayman.
It’s that versatility that’s lost here; if the first few records in the series were more varied, later ones find Cash narrowed if not quite flattened. Accepting Rubin’s version of the man is like reducing Picasso to lickerish drawings of Jacqueline or Eliot to “Four Quartets.” Cash may now seem like a John Wayne figure, but he was closer in spirit to Robert Mitchum, always restless and always changing, and here each stark, lovely cover (Sheryl Crow’s “Redemption Day,” Tom Paxton’s “Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound”) begs for a “Dirty Old Egg-Sucking Dog” or “Put the Sugar to Bed.” Cash could always do solemnity, but he could also do comedy, character sketches, and cornpone philosophy. And he could do it in his own write: the Rubin reboot frames Cash primarily as an interpreter, but he was also a prolific songwriter. Here, the sole Cash original, “I Corinthians 15:55,” a gentle piece rooted in Scripture (“O, Death, where is thy sting?”), hits the same valedictory note as the rest of the collection. Rubin shouldn’t be blamed for leaving us with this Cash. But he shouldn’t be allowed to run away with the thing, either. Cash’s American period should go down in history as a triumph of record making and a cautionary tale about remaking image.