American VI: Ain’t No Grave, recorded by Johnny Cash and producer Rick Rubin in 2003, was released this week in time for what would have been the Man in Black’s 78th birthday, and in time for this reflection by Lisa:
He was also the old style American Christian I wish we had more of. He recognized his frailties, once saying, “Some people know just how to go straight to Heaven. I’m someone who has to get there one half mile a day.” He had a strong faith, but never waved it in anyone’s face or forced it on anyone. He just lived it. And that was inspiration enough. When he sang, with the voice of an Old Testament Prophet, you just had to sit up and listen. Rick Rubin, his last producer and a Jew, tells how Johnny once asked if he could take his hand and pray with him. It became a ritual with the two of them, even during telephone conversations. Rubin says he felt blessed to be so honored by a man of faith and included in that faith, even if it wasn’t his own.
We could use a lot more of that, along several different vectors.
Of course, his work and concerts in prisons are the stuff of legend. Based on that, I’ve heard some call Johnny “the original Punk”. But he wasn’t at least if you define a Punk as a nihilistic criminal. Johnny’s lyrics always packed an Old Testament wallop. In a Johnny Cash song, you could break the law, but you paid the price. You might “shoot a man in Reno just to watch him die” but then you’d have to acknowledge “I know I had it comin’, I know I can’t be free”. You could “be in the arms of your best friend’s wife” but then you’d get hung and your paramour would have to “walk these hills in a long black veil”. There was no free lunch and no Gangsta Life in Johnny Cash’s world. And he stood up as the premier example of a man who’d had to pay for his sins.
Only once did Cash ever seem to get away with it: in “One Piece at a Time,” his 1970s tall tale of working at a GM assembly plant and sneaking out an occasional auto part in his lunchbox, until after a couple of decades he had enough to build the Cadillac of his dreams. Then again, what with model changes and all, what he wound up with was, shall we say, not entirely dreamy-looking. Payback is still a bitch.
Still, the title track on the new collection is decidedly New Testament: as Brother Claude Ely used to say, “There ain’t no grave gonna hold my body down.”