The last chapter in Johnny Cash’s ‘American’ series
Producer Rick Rubin took up a seat on a sofa on the patio of his expansive Malibu home overlooking the Pacific, emanating both gravity and joy while discussing his extraordinary decade-long relationship with Johnny Cash.
It was the first full day of sun after yet another round of thunderstorms had pounded the Southland, a fitting parting of the clouds on the day Rubin spoke about one of the titans of 20th century music in the final years of his life.
The final entry in their series of studio albums arrives Tuesday, “American VI: Ain’t No Grave,” yet despite the nod to mortality in the title, an acknowledgment of the closeness of death that runs through most of the album’s 10 songs, Rubin insists that it wasn’t created as Cash’s swan song.
“He had made plans to come to Los Angeles to start recording,” said the 46-year-old producer of Run-DMC, the Beastie Boys, Metallica, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Tom Petty. “It was the first trip he had planned in a long time . . . He had been on the upswing physically, and was looking forward to getting started on Volumes 7 and 8. That’s what made it such a shock when I got the call that he had passed.”
It’s also one reason it’s taken so long for Rubin to put the finishing touches on what he and Cash had been working on nearly seven years ago. “I wasn’t in any hurry to let this go,” he said with a little chuckle.
In the months leading up to his death on Sept. 12, 2003, Cash, Rubin and John Carter Cash -- Johnny and June Carter’s son -- had mapped out both the fifth and sixth volumes of the “American” albums they’d started with 1994’s “American Recordings.” That one earned Cash a Grammy for best contemporary folk album; he collected another Grammy for its 1996 successor, “Unchained,” which was named best country album.
While working on “American V” and “VI,” which were recorded essentially simultaneously over several months at the end of 2002 and in 2003 near Cash’s home in Hendersonville, Tenn., each man came armed with lists of potential songs, lists they continuously updated and expanded.
“American V: A Hundred Highways,” which surfaced in 2006, is the album Rubin considers to be Cash’s statement about death -- raising the question, what’s left for an encore?
“I feel like this is him talking about what’s next,” Rubin said. “There’s a very otherworldly quality to it. And that’s nothing we could have planned. . . . While we were finishing it, once we heard his voice again, we really felt a presence in the studio, and it helped with making a lot of the decisions.”
Even a song as familiar and frequently recorded as Kris Kristofferson’s “For the Good Times” takes on a different weight knowing the man who sang it is now gone: “Don’t look so sad / I know it’s over / But life goes on / And this old world will keep on turning / Let’s just be glad we had some time to spend together . . .”
“John’s version . . . is so beautiful and sad that it’s hard for me to listen to,” Kristofferson said after hearing his longtime friend’s track for the first time recently.
Rubin also finds considerable beauty, and sadness, in “Ain’t No Grave,” along with the realization that maybe even more than Cash’s death, the completion and release of “American VI” closes a door between them. “I hadn’t thought of it in that way, but I guess so,” Rubin said, pausing. “I guess so.”
“I loved him so much,” Rubin said, then quickly shifted to another verb tense -- “I love him so much,” as if he’d just been silently reminded of the possibility of transformation that Cash bequeathed to him.