Let me tell you a story about my dad and Johnny Cash. Many American music lovers of a certain age could spin out such a connection; Cash is primary among artists who represent the tough psyche of the post-war patriarchal male, his music exposing the connections between empowerment and violence, pride and repression, that defined an ideal still romanticized long after it became dated.
Frank Sinatra did it, tux tie loosened, with a Scotch in his hand. Muddy Waters shouted about it in a sharkskin suit before the folkies persuaded him to put on overalls. Cash wore black, keeping everything primal even when he was playing a role or just goofing around. He was the ultimate father figure, King James biblical in proportion, showing how deep a baritone voice and a limited color wheel could go.
My father, also named John, was never a Cash fan. His taste ran more to the big bands and sentimental singers like Mario Lanza. But when he died of pancreatic cancer at 82, John T. Powers did so in a way that John R. Cash’s late-period music perfectly describes. Exiting this world, the imperfect patriarch of my family was forced to reach for the essence of dignity in a way that both called upon and challenged him as a traditional American man, which is what Cash does on the album that producer Rick Rubin gives us now.
Drawing on my experience with my dad, I’d call “American VI: Ain’t No Grave,” due out Tuesday, Cash’s hospice record. The singer lost his battle with diabetes and asthma months after he recorded these songs; during the sessions, his wife and primary support system, June Carter Cash, unexpectedly succumbed after heart surgery. Though he wasn’t formally in end-of-life care, it’s clear that when he selected and interpreted these 10 songs, he was closing his life’s book.
Taken as a whole, the six-part American Recordings series offers a striking portrait of an artist confronting physical decline. The word “physical” is important here. Cash’s late-coming sobriety and Rubin’s ability to get the old showman to take himself seriously again, combined with the singer’s natural tendency toward minimalism, produced a remarkable clarity.
There might be hokum on these albums -- as the critic Jody Rosen pointed out in a 2006 Slate essay, Cash going Goth with covers of Nine Inch Nails and Depeche Mode was “both great art and shameless kitsch” -- but there is no fat. Adopting Trent Reznor’s angst, applying his own writing talents to old folk forms like the murder ballad, or simply praising the God who helped him get through, Cash unadorned every lyric, exposing the dumb phrases as well as the gems. The musicians Rubin enlisted to embellish the work, many of them famous but obviously all hushed by the legend’s presence, listened and gave him room.
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.
A strongman in decline
At first, it was also something of a show. Like most chronic drug users, Cash had many health struggles, but in 1994 he was in vigorous voice, and you can hear a chuckle behind the spooky tone of his first recordings with Rubin. It’s there in the swing he gave the tale of mayhem " Delia’s Gone” and in the droll croon he applies to his former son-in-law Nick Lowe’s dissection of the id, “The Beast in Me.”
Holding onto that chuckle was a key part of the remarkable feat Cash and Rubin accomplished over the ensuing decade. Loving the work, Cash recorded all kinds of songs -- funny ones, familiar ones, some he’d recorded before and others he never would have heard if not for his hip younger friends. The material matters; it was a blessing that Rubin kept Cash away from the soft rock of contemporary Nashville, and occasionally, the hipster connection worked magic. But the greater value of the American Recordings emerges through Cash and Rubin’s unflinching attention to the details of his slowly failing instrument.
Many older singers just sound bad because they’re still trying to present themselves as totally masterful. Cash didn’t do that. He let in the cracks and the shortness of breath and the flatness. That’s when the chuckle comes in, often silent but always pushing against the inherent drama of the songs and the moment. “Oh, well,” you can almost hear Cash say, “I’m still singing.”
The recordings leading to Cash’s last sessions, which resulted in both “Ain’t No Grave” and the preceding posthumous release “American V: A Hundred Highways,” constitute this public display of a man’s man coming to terms with his own vulnerability. Those final efforts, however, are different, and “Ain’t No Grave” especially captures Cash’s final mood. It’s more private, not as overtly “heavy,” but in its humility and inward-turning spirit it profoundly completes Johnny Cash’s gift of a good death.
Here’s a vivid memory I have from my dad’s first days in hospice. We’d just found out that this cancer, one of several serious diseases that plagued him during his last decade, was inoperable. My Uncle Bill, his older brother, brought my Aunt Joyce over for a visit. We settled into my parents’ living room and exchanged meaningful pleasantries. My dad sat in his special chair; my mom served hors d’oeuvres. The knowledge that my father was dying took up plenty of space in the room, but for that afternoon, we tried to simply live with that knowledge, incorporating it into the day-to-day.
The earliest volumes of the American Recordings remind me of that visit. In both cases -- my family in the living room, Cash and his collaborators in various studios, together or alone -- everyone involved applied great energy to the act of relaxing into the total ambiguity that takes over when death is in the room. There was a sense that public gestures still mattered.
That feeling is gone on “Ain’t No Grave.” Rubin has told interviewers that after he lost June, Cash lost his motivation to live, beyond making music. Think of that: For Cash, at the end, recording the vocals captured here was the reason to fight for life. Yet they’re not full of blood and thunder. Partly because of failing strength but also maybe because he no longer felt any need for bluster or any other kind of show, Cash melds with these melodies, not so much interpreting them as letting them support him, gently.
There’s plenty here for the morbid to mine. Still, Cash refuses to be overly somber. Rubin’s production on the title track is ominous, with banjo and foot-stomping from his protégés Scott and Seth Avett to give this old hymn a freak-folk edge, but Cash’s vocal has the punch of an old fighter. “Cool Water” is more characteristic; in Cash’s hands, the well-known cowboy song of fatal thirst becomes positively soothing.
Meeting death head-on
“1 Corinthians 15:55,” Cash’s sole writing contribution, better captures the overall mood of acceptance and even some small joy in the face of insurmountable loss. Based around St. Paul’s rhetorical question “O Death, where is thy sting?” it’s a waltz that trips lightly along in an old-timey parlor music arrangement. The song pairs beautifully with folk singer Tom Paxton’s existential blues, “Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound,” which in Cash’s wavering but calm voice becomes a mantra of self-acceptance.
“Ain’t No Grave” is governed by that spirit, the feeling that comes to the dying once they’ve absorbed the real meaning of the euphemism “making peace with death.” You make peace with life, with what you have left. You take whatever tiny pleasure remains. You try to love the ones losing you.
At least that’s what my dad did, even in the last few weeks of hospice. One song on “Ain’t No Grave” made little sense to me until it triggered another memory of his final days. Near the end, he was confined to his bed. Only immediate family came to visit. We had entered a private space in which no one tried to be particularly upbeat, but the mood in the house wasn’t heavy. My dad was ready to go, and we were ready to let him.
One afternoon I walked into my dad’s room, and music was playing. It was an easy-listening record, probably one by Jackie Gleason and his orchestra. Lying semi-conscious, my father lifted his hands like a conductor and waved them. That corny, beautiful sound had gone right into him and carried him somewhere.
When I hear Johnny Cash singing “Aloha Oe,” the Hawaiian song of goodbye, I see my dad, almost gone but still with us, simultaneously sustained and transported by music.
“Aloha Oe” is a song easily pegged to airline commercials and luau-themed patio parties. But as Cash imparts it in a tone that deserves to be called “dulcet,” that baggage slips away. “Aloha Oe” becomes as basic as life itself is at the end. Just another lovely melody, there for Johnny Cash to sing, while he still could.