You could make the case that Johnny Cash’s American series, which began so strongly in 1994 with American Recordings, had diminishing returns as the Man in Black’s health deteriorated. But despite Cash’s shaky vocal performances, all the albums have a power that belies the singer’s health and age. Producer Rick Rubin seems to understand Cash and worked with him steadily, even after his wife, June Carter Cash, passed away. While Cash, who died shortly after his wife’s death in 2003, struggled to finish American V and American VI, which were recorded at the same time, Ain’t No Grave puts a posthumous punctuation mark at the end of the series. It opens with the ominous title tune, which is accented by the sound of a rattling chain that sounds like Cash is warding off a grim reaper, as the Avett Brothers play alongside. Stripped to its core, Sheryl Crow’s “Redemption Day” is equally ominous, as Cash muses on current affairs and ponders, “There is a train that’s heading straight to heaven’s gate/And on the way, child and man and woman wait.” Given that these songs were recorded so close to his death, tunes like Jack Rhodes’ “Satisfied Mind” and Ed McCurdy’s “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream” have an almost tenderly reflective spirit to them — as if the country outlaw put his life in perspective and could finally slept at night. — Jeff Niesel
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