Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Last Stash of Cash

Johnny Cash's 'American' series concludes today with the release of the sixth volume, 'Ain't No Grave.' The songs come from sessions that began in 2002, just after Cash and producer Rick Rubin wrapped up 'American IV: The Man Comes Around,' and continued all the way up until Cash's death in 2003. Cash's wife, June Carter, died during these recordings, and Cash's own health was deteriorating. The press release from label Lost Highway explains his final days this way:

According to Rubin, "Johnny said that recording was his main reason for being alive. I think it was the only thing that kept him going."

Cash feared that American IV might be his last release, so Rubin suggested that he immediately begin writing and recording new material. Due to the artist's frail condition, Rubin arranged for an engineer and guitar players to always be on call. "Every morning, when he'd wake up, he would call the engineer and tell him if he was physically up to working that day," Rubin explains.

During those months, Rubin went to Nashville several times to record with Cash. After a particularly productive four days of sessions, the artist said to the producer, "Oh, this is great; please stay longer." So Rubin canceled his return flight to L.A., only to get a call the next morning that Cash was back in the hospital. "So there was a lot of stopping and starting, based on his health," says Rubin. "But he always wanted to work. The doctors in the hospital kind of lectured me, saying, 'He's not going to stop, so you have to make sure he doesn't work too much.'"

Though Cash knew his days were short, "There was no fear," Rubin says. "I remember speaking to him maybe an hour after June died. He was in the hospital, with her, and I'd never heard him so distraught. And he said, 'You know, I've been through tremendous pain in my life, and I've never felt anything like this.' It was so bad that I didn't know what to say. He sounded so weak, so beaten, and I'd never really heard him like that before. I'm not sure where the question came from, but I said, 'Do you feel like somewhere you can find faith?' And when he heard that word, a switch went off in his head, and he answered in a strong voice, 'My faith is UNSHAKABLE.' And the conversation changed after that. So he had tremendous faith, he didn't really have fear and he already was dealing with pain; I think he had acceptance. When he knew he was going to die, he was calm and matter of fact about it, and... that was it."

I was very late to the Cash party, and I confess that other than the hits everyone knows, I was oblivious to his charms. It was this series that started me on my journey to Johnny. For that, I thank Rubin. If not for this seemingly odd collaboration, I probably would have missed out on a true icon.

Johnny Cash - Ain't No Grave (mp3)

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