Johnny Cash’s last album releases today. He died in 2003, and this is the last of his American Recordings with producer Rick Rubin. There are certainly going to be more Cash albums as material is re-released or newly discovered, but this is certainly the final album recorded by the country music legend.
I’ve written before about how those who know they will soon die often discover a new calling, a fresh understanding of who they are and what they need to do on this side of eternity. It doesn’t happen with everyone, but it seems that people whose death is extended over a few years often do experience a kind of rebirth—right before death.
Johnny Cash seemed to experience not so much a rebirth but a deepening and intensifying of his musical artistry. Cash exemplifies something all people need to do in order to die well: Continue living fully.
In his final decade of life, Cash laid down the tracks for what became the six American Recordings, the last of which “Ain’t No Grave” comes out today. All the recordings show Cash in physical decline. The albums cannot hide Cash’s relentless physical failing, but that’s the point.
Not everyone appreciates the audio candor. One reviewer asks:
Should these recordings — recorded by a man who was racing against time — represent his last recorded work ever? … 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.
In other words, unless listeners extend sympathy to Cash on this album, they won’t like it. Johnny Cash’s legacy, the reviewer writes, is “now being more defined as the sound of a patient seemingly belonging in a hospice.”
But that’s in large part why I enjoyed these final albums. It’s true, I’d rather listen to the classic “Ring of Fire” than Cash singing Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus.” But the fact that he brought his musical brilliance and his old age is what makes the recordings meaningful. After all, music isn’t only about the sound. I’m not alone in being attracted to the albums for that reason. An LA Times reviewer says,
Cash’s legend grew exponentially, because while Americans have heard many men in their prime declare themselves tough or wounded or murderous, we’ve been less open to the voices of the old or the vulnerable. The sound of Cash in decline was a powerful shock that reminded listeners of the breadth of every human life.
Cash wasn’t shy about his physical decline. That’s obvious in the recording. And when Cash did the music video for his version of “Hurt” by Nine Inch Nails, it’s clear he is preparing his own eulogy.
The only original song Cash wrote for “Ain’t No Grave” is titled “1 Corinthians 15:55” which reads, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”
It’s a stirring verse to be singing about in one’s last days.