NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Johnny Cash’s “Last” Album Raises a Question

What Should Determine an Artist's Lasting Memory?

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

The release of Johnny Cash’s American VI: Ain’t No Grave album may do a genuine disservice to his memory and legacy. Not every home recording by every aging artist needs to be released. The true Cash fanatics and completists want it, as a true collector wants every possible artifact from the object of worship. But it’s a very incomplete snapshot of Johnny Cash as a great artist. It amounts to a graphic document of his fading musical talents in his last days. Almost a document of death.

The album will “officially” be released on Feb. 26, which would have been his 78th birthday. Normally, albums are released on Tuesdays, which would have called for a Feb. 23 release. It will likely be available on the 23rd.

In the memorable video for “Hurt,” Cash had come to resemble a magnificent wreck, bent and bowed and broken but still defiant and proud. American VI sounds like exactly what Cash was at the time: a grief-stricken sudden widower who was himself dying. He was trying to stare death down by singing his way out of his life, but he was obviously slowly succumbing.

To be sure, it was Cash’s decision to spend his final days recording, rather than waiting for death to come and claim him. But. The question lingers: Should these recordings — recorded by a man who was racing against time — represent his last recorded work ever? Or would he be better served by having these recordings be represented in a larger perspective, as part of an overall retrospective? I feel that is a fair question. If this work had been presented as a mere music offering during his career, without any context, it would have been summarily rejected by audience and critics alike. It is the context that adds weight and meaning and understanding to it. Standing alone as a music work, it is lacking. As a document, it presents a telling end to a life, but it cries for a larger context.

Cash’s career spanned a remarkable arc, from the mercurial 45s of his early Sun Records years, to the career years with Columbia, to the sloughs of later despond.

His recordings in his last years — to me — represent some of the most inspired artistic choices of his career. Not everyone agrees, but I feel that the best of the American Recordings encapsulate his career and his musical worldview marvelously. They showed him at the peak of his song acumen. They didn’t show him at the peak of his vocal strength. He never had all that much a great singing voice to begin with, but it was distinctive and oh-so expressive. But the Cash voice of his old age was a voice that reached out to you, beseeching and preaching and pleading, rather than daring you, as the young Cash did.

Johnny Cash began working with producer Rick Rubin in 1993, when Cash was a 61-year-old country music legend whose career was in the toilet. He couldn’t get a hit or even attract a major record label. His former home, Columbia Records, had dropped him in 1986 as a washed-up has-been who was too old to attract a younger audience.

He recorded for Mercury Nashville, without any real success. After meeting rock producer Rubin, they began the last remarkable chapter in Cash’s musical life. When they discussed what to record, Rubin ended up telling Cash, “Just sing me everything you want to record.” And that’s what he did.

The American Recordings series produced a remarkable — if uneven — collection of albums. They brought Cash commercial and critical acclaim again as well as a slew of awards, including a large handful of Grammys.

At the time he was recording a series of songs that would later become American VI in 2003, his wife of 35 years, June Carter Cash, died. Cash’s health had already been declining due to a series of illnesses and ailments in recent years. June’s death left him without the rock of his life. I was profoundly touched, seeing him wheeled down the aisle at her funeral at the Hendersonville First Baptist Church near Nashville. He looked so sick and frail, and seemed so bereft and forlorn, as he was saying goodbye to his beloved June.

Music was what he had left to cling to, and he turned to it with what tenacity he had left. He and Rubin had continued recording after completing American IV in 2002, up until his death. Some of those songs make up the V and VI albums, both completed and released after his death.

This album includes a collection of end-of-life-themed country and folk songs. “Ain’t No Grave,” “Redemption Day,” “For the Good Times,” “I Corinthians 15:15,” “Can’t Help but Wonder Where I’m Bound,” “Satisfied Mind,” “I Don’t Hurt Anymore,” “Cool Water,” “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream” and “Aloha Oe.” Some of the renditions show Cash still able to summon some vocal strength. Others show his obvious weakness and frailty as he faced death without flinching.

He died on Sept, 12, 2003, four months after June’s death.

What had been initially called Cash’s final album, American V: A Hundred Highways, had included what was said to be the last song Cash ever wrote, “Like the 309,” which was a proud and defiant musical farewell. Wasn’t that a more fitting goodbye for Cash than now ending his “last” album with the Hawaiian song “Aloha Oe”?

I know that “aloha oe” can mean “breath of life,” but the song itself is used more as a love song and a term of goodbye. It has pretty much — in American pop culture at least — passed into the tourist idiom. Who can forget Elvis’ version in Blue Hawaii?

Do you remember the Johnny Cash of the defiant middle-finger pose at Folsom Prison? There is no longer even a lingering trace of that Johnny Cash in what is becoming his musical legacy. It’s now being more defined as the sound of a patient seemingly belonging in a hospice, as in this — one hopes — final album.

Everyone’s lingering memory of Cash is different. I do recall the sick old man in a wheel chair. But — even more vividly — I remember Johnny Cash as a vibrant, strong and confident man, standing tall and commanding a stage.