by David Kamp
February 23, 2010, 10:00 AM
Photo by Kevin Estrada.
In 2004, not quite a year after the death of Johnny Cash, I found myself spending many hours at the Hollywood Hills house that the producer Rick Rubin was then using as a studio, rehearsal space, crash pad, and nerve center for his various operations. The rooms were cluttered with Buddha statues, reclaimed church friezes, and other religious artifacts. The bookshelves were lined with theological tracts and New Age manuals. The floors were covered with CDs and dog hair. The speakers were playing Cash’s final recordings.
These were committed to tape in the raw, fraught days of Cash’s end times: the four months in 2003 between the passing of his beloved wife, June, and his own death. Some of the songs made for devastating listening, Cash’s voice quavering with frailty and grief. Others were actually pretty funny: a defiant summoning of the same nerve and vim that impelled Cash, a long time ago, to preside merrily over electrifying prison concerts at Folsom and San Quentin. Rubin listened to the music with his eyes closed, his legs crossed, and his torso rocking, as if in a yogic trance—but still, I noticed him tearing up at the sad parts and chuckling at the funny parts.
Rubin was the man responsible for reviving Cash’s artistic fortunes in his last decade, and I was fascinated by the very fact of their collaboration, especially given the former’s Def Jam and hard-rock pedigrees. So I asked Rubin if we could discuss, in depth, his relationship with the Man in Black. He agreed and was generous with his time and recollections. And as it turned out, there was a lot more to their relationship than the transactional business of making records. The resulting article, “American Communion,” appeared in the October 2004 issue of V.F. If it’s not too gauche to say so, it’s my personal favorite of the articles I’ve written.
At the time we met, Rubin was pretty sure that the LP he was putting together would be the concluding volume of Cash’s American series (so named because the albums all appeared on Rubin’s American Recordings label). When I asked if he planned to release posthumous albums in perpetuity, as the estate of Tupac Shakur has proven adept at doing, Rubin said no, “because there’s something that doesn’t feel good about the Tupac-ing.”
But when American V: A Hundred Highways finally emerged in 2006, it didn’t have all the songs on it that I’d heard in that strange Hollywood Hills house. Now, blessedly, comes the last last album, American VI: Ain’t No Grave. Worry not about the specter of ’Pac-sploitation: this is an essential addition to the Cash catalogue, and a welcome opportunity to hear that voice—part God, part hoodlum—once more.