Music: Johnny cash * * * *
American VI: Ain't No Grave (Lost Highway)
Published 19/02/2010 | 05:00
After enjoying a fruitful 1950s and 60s, the following two decades would be a tough period for Johnny Cash, as he struggled artistically and in his private life.
But in one of music's most striking renaissances, his last years on earth would see him enjoy a level of critical acclaim on par with what he achieved early in his career.
That glorious late period began in 1994 with the release of the first in the American series of albums. With Rick Rubin's sensitive, no-nonsense production, Cash truly found his voice with a handful of originals and a glut of covers, including his extraordinary renditions of U2's One and Nine Inch Nail's Hurt.
The stripped-back formula stayed the same with each subsequent album made under Rubin's stewardship, and now, seven years after his death, the sixth and final chapter in the American catalogue has been unveiled.
The sense of mortality is at the forefront of the collection. Knowing that Cash would die just three months after the end of the sessions only adds to the feeling of finality.
Some may be moved to tears when listening to his gently stark version of the Kris Kristofferson song, For The Good Times, as he sings: "Don't look so sad/I know it's over."
The acknowledgement of his own impending death is also evident in the album's only Cash original, I Corinthians: 15:55, a song he had apparently honed over several years. "Hope springs eternal just over the rise/ When I see my redeemer beckoning me."
Like many of the best songs in the American series, Ain't No Grave's best track comes from an unlikely source. This time, it's Sheryl Crow's hard-hitting Redemption Day and it is bent and twisted out of shape as Cash takes a good song and makes it great.
In places, his 71-year-old voice barely makes it past a croak, but in keeping with the searing honesty that he and Rubin brought to the six albums they made together, there's no attempt to mask the imperfections.
Rather, his frailties and humanity are accentuated and the songs are all the more powerful as a result.
Burn it: I Corinthians:15:55; Redemption Day