Cash's solemn 'Grave'

By Bill Friskics-Warren
Tuesday, February 23, 2010

One of the most moving moments at Johnny Cash's funeral at First Baptist Church in Hendersonville, Tenn., 6 1/2 years ago was when the Fisk Jubilee Singers offered their stirring rendition of the old gospel song "Ain't No Grave (Gonna Hold My Body Down)." As the raised voices of the chorus sent a surge of spiritual voltage through the sanctuary, they testified to Cash's unshakable conviction that nothing -- not sickness or suffering, not even death -- could separate him from the God he embraced during his lifetime.

"Ain't No Grave" is also the title track of the sixth -- and final -- volume in the series of unvarnished "American Recordings" that Cash made with producer Rick Rubin. Yet here, sounding a weary but no less resolute note, his craggy vocals are accompanied by mournful strains of banjo and slide guitar that evoke not glory but the perils along life's way. "Meet me, Jesus, meet me/Meet me in the middle of the air/And if these wings don't fail me/I will meet you anywhere," he vows in a trembling baritone. On the offbeats, trudging feet and drum rolls echo the steps of a pilgrim steadfastly marching on.

Not surprisingly for a man of faith confronting his mortality, there's a spiritual, even biblical quality to the record. A bittersweet version of Tom Paxton's "Can't Help but Wonder Where I'm Bound," for example, takes on added poignancy when heard from the standpoint of someone about to pass from life into death.

Similarly, when Cash declares "I don't hurt anymore" on a rippling cover of the old Hank Snow hit of that name, it's no longer the profession of a lover whose heart has mended. It's the cry of someone who has endured great pain anticipating what it will be like to cross safely to life's other side. When, in his valedictory take of "For the Good Times," Cash tenderly urges, "Don't look so sad, I know it's over/But life goes on, and this old world keeps on turning," he extends a word of comfort to those who remain behind.

This being the Man in Black, there's also no shortage of solidarity with people struggling on life's margins. "I've wept for those who suffer long," he mourns, his voice remarkably steady, on Sheryl Crow's "Redemption Day." And he turns "Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream," the whimsical old folk ballad, into a lullaby. Cash's vocals here almost sound soothing enough to induce the world's powers, per the song's lyrics, "to put an end to war."

More than anything, though, "Ain't No Grave" presents the Man in Black as an unwavering man of faith. In the gently triumphant "I Corinthians 15:55," a previously unrecorded original, he asks, "O death, where is thy sting?/O grave, where is thy victory?" Then, with the confidence of one who trusts that soon, he indeed won't be hurting anymore, he adds, "O life, you are a shining path/And hope springs eternal just over the rise/When I see my redeemer beckoning me."

Friskics-Warren is a freelance writer.

Recommended tracks:

"Ain't No Grave," "I Corinthians 15:55," "I Don't Hurt Anymore"

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