Maybe he’s an opportunist. Maybe. I’m not sure. Speaking here of producer Rick Rubin, that is, not Johnny Cash. Let me repeat that: Johnny Cash, rest his soul, could never be confused with an opportunist. He was many things in his day, but never that. Rubin, on the other hand, just might be. Why? Because, he just keeps on pumping out posthumous Cash records, claiming each release to be the last. Baiting us. Lying, even.
But who cares, with Ain’t No Grave we get 10 more Cash studio recordings. And damn if producer Rubin doesn’t do a great job here, keeping things lean but immaculately detailed, clearly doing all he can to respect the Cash name. Opener “Ain’t No Grave” is haunting and stark, Rubin even adding the sound of a chain gain march to the mix, which also features fantastically moody and subtle guitar work from Matt Sweeney. The Avett Brothers, too, guest on the song, adding banjo and foot stomps. The result is much more in line with the current crop of dark singer/songwriters (think Will Oldham, Ray Raposa, Bill Callahan and the like) than the country genre Cash is known for. There’s no understating it, this song is huge, worth the price of admission alone.
Ain’t No Grave was recorded at the same time as American V: A Hundred Highways, the record that brought Cash back into the mainstream. For the records, Cash used a classic lineup of players, including not only Sweeney, but also Smokey Hormel, Larry Gatlin, Mac Wiseman, Marty Stuart, Randy Scruggs, Jack Clement and many others. And, for the most part, this 30-minute collection sounds similar to Highways, though I get the impression that Rubin took much more time to perfect these songs after Cash passed away than he had with past recordings. While the vocals are always modest and raw, the arrangements are not.
The arrangements are some of the best I’ve heard in this genre in ages. Some of the best ever, maybe. Rubin adds so many brilliant – and minor – flourishes to each song that my head spins a little more with each spin – a new discovery to blush at each time I push play. It’s hard to tell, even, if Cash is at his best, because the production and playing is so top shelf. He interprets a number of classic songs, adding one original of his own, sounding like Johnny Cash at all times. And, I suppose, that’s more than enough.
The single original, “I Corinthians 15:55,” opens slowly with a distant piano and some verbose phrasings. A sweet acoustic then melts into the mix, and that’s just the beginning. As the song sways along the arrangement builds, track after track, player after player, it becomes a masterpiece. It becomes one of the more memorable songs of the American series, at least as far as arrangements are concerned. While most of the recordings here are fantastic, a few songs (“Satisfied Mind,” for example) are good, not great.
I could go on and on about how worthwhile this record is, but that’d be going against my hunch that Rubin is capitalizing on his late friendship with Cash. But, hey, after hearing the care Rubin took with this record enough times over, I can’t believe it to be true. Capitalists don’t fine tune like this. And while many critics seem to think that Ain’t No Grave is the worst of the American series, most claiming that it’s the first to sound quite a bit like another from the series (Highways, duh), I have no problem with that. Highways was a fantastic record, as is Grave. This is country music, not a college art critique.
It’s been said that Cash, Rubin and the band recorded 50 or more songs during the sessions that produced Highways and Grave. Johnny was supposedly so upset after the death of his wife that he wanted to be as lost in music as possible. So, I suppose I’m totally defeating the argument I make in my opening paragraph when I say that I hope remaining 28 songs from those sessions surface. Bring on American VII and VIII, Mr. Rubin.