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Music notes: 'American VI' caps Johnny Cash's career perfectly

Johnny Cash's "American VI: Ain't No Grave"
Johnny Cash's "American VI: Ain't No Grave"
Associated Press

Friday is Johnny Cash's birthday.

The Man in Black would have turned 78.

Cash left this world in the late summer of 2003, following his beloved bride, June Carter Cash, who died a few months earlier.

Still, Cash literally, up until the day he died, made music.

Today, American Recordings released "American VI: Ain't No Grave." The full-length CD of new recordings is the sixth and final entry in Cash's critically acclaimed "American" series.

On the new CD, Cash takes the listener on a journey that begins with resistance but eventually ends with reconciliation.

As with the other "American" releases, this one was produced by Rick Rubin. And it's a keeper.

Rubin caught Cash's trademark defiance on the haunting ball-and-chain title track, which opens this rustic and spiritual CD.

The producer also caught the singer on the edges of life's refining fires during Sheryl Crow's "Redemption Day."

At times Cash seems to be comforting himself and his family as he comes to terms with his mortality, and he raises a toast to his past during Kris Kristofferson's gentle picturesque ballad "For the Good Times."

Other times Cash seems to be challenging death but succumbing to salvation as heard during the gospel-esque "1 Corinthians 15:55."

Throughout the CD, it is evident that Cash is looking at life, death and love from as many sides as he can.

His introspective delivery on Tom Paxton's contemplative "Can't Help But Wonder Where I'm Bound" and the solitary conviction of Hayes & Rhodes' "Satisfied Mind" are other highlights of this atmospheric and touching CD.

Closer to the end of the CD, Cash smiles at and willfully embraces death with Robertson and Rollins' "I Don't Hurt Anymore," Bob Nolan's classic "Cool Water" and Ed McCurdy's lullaby "Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream."

There is even a glimpse of fond farewell with the heartfelt rendition of the CD closer, "Aloha Oe."

Musical guests include the Heartbreakers' guitarist and keyboardist, Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench, respectively, and guitarists Jonny Polonsky, Matt Sweeny and Smokey Hormel.

Credit goes to Rubin who kept these guys on call throughout the recording sessions and called them in at all hours of the day, whenever the ailing Cash felt strong enough to work.

There is a strength in Cash's frail voice. Not only is he able to hit the notes, but he makes each song a personal journal entry that is preserved for family, fans and music lovers alike.

"American VI: Ain't No Grave" is the perfect capper for an illustrious career that was filled with hills and valleys but also love and devotion.

Happy birthday, Johnny. You are missed.