This Friday marks what would’ve been Johnny Cash’s 78th birthday. It’s also the official release date of American VI: Ain’t No Grave, the last disc in an iconic series of late-era Cash albums produced by Rick Rubin. Over the course of their nearly ten-year working relationship, Rubin and Cash established one of the more revered associations between producer and musician — and the two also became close friends. Vulture spoke with Rubin about how he meditated after Cash’s death on the until-now unreleased material the two recorded; the cover Bono preferred to “One,” by U2; and how he chose the last song on what will be the last official Cash album.
Did you take a lengthy amount of time away from the recordings after Johnny had passed?
Yes. I don’t remember the time, but it was a very long time.
Was it necessary, or were you just busy?
No, it just felt like I didn’t want to go there at the time At first it made me feel really bad — like just starting to hear him sing, I got really sad. It just felt like this was going to be a bummer, but then when we started to work on the music, that all changed. We didn’t have a set direction to what it was supposed to sound like. It felt like he guided the proceedings and it turned into what it turned into. I was very pleasantly surprised by the creative unfoldment, in coming out of the sadness. It ended up feeling healing, where at first it seemed like, “Oh my God.” It made me miss him at first, and I didn’t even realize it was going to have that effect, I have to tell you. I think both American V and American VI are different from the rest of the series, and I feel like Johnny’s presence did it, in a supernatural way. I don’t know how to explain it, but it felt like a mystical thing happened.
Everyone loves the rendition of Cash doing Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt,” but I’ve always been partial to Nick Cave’s “The Mercy Seat” [from American III: Solitary Man].
It’s really good. It’s funny, that was Johnny’s favorite one on that album, and he wanted it to open the album. And he was ultimately right; I think I was wrong. The concern with it being first was you wouldn’t be able to listen to anything else on the album because it’s just so heavy; it would make the whole rest of the album feel like an afterthought, so I was wary, but he really loved it and thought it would be a very powerful way to start it.
But following the Will Oldham song [“I See A Darkness”] is pretty powerful.
Yeah. And isn’t “One” on that album, too?
I remember when Bono heard the album, I asked if he liked the way it was done and he said, “I love it, but it’s not as good as ‘The Mercy Seat.’ That’s the song.”
When you were recording these last two albums, did he talk about any sort of hopes he had for them?
No, it’s odd. His health was up and down all the time. Even with the grief of June dying, he really had a turnaround in his health. He went from being in a wheelchair and almost blind, to being in a wheelchair and almost able to walk. He was scheduled to come to Los Angeles two weeks after he passed — we’d scheduled to do more recording, so it wasn’t clear that these were going to be the last albums. These were the albums that we were working on, and they were going to be the next, but had he lived, we would’ve kept on recording. He wasn’t dying. He really wasn’t dying at the time.
The send-off on American VI — the Hawaiian song “Aloha Oe” — feels like a pretty deliberate way to close things.
Yes. Let me tell you how it happened, though. It was sort of deliberate. I was trying to follow Johnny’s wish, and I knew his wish from American IV. He thought that was going to be his last album, and “We’ll Meet Again” was the last song on IV — and when we recorded it, he was insistent that everyone in the studio, the engineers, the musicians, all had to sing on the last chorus of “We’ll Meet Again.” And his family, the people that worked in his office. He felt that he wanted a recorded bond between his friends, his family, and the people he worked with, and that was going to be the last song. In his mind, the series was done. Not because he wanted it to end, but I think he felt that he wasn’t in great shape and thought that it was going to be it. But I could tell it was really breaking his heart that it was it. I remember, we were at my house and he shook my hand and said, “I want to thank you for this, it was so great that we could do this together.” It was the good-bye conversation — we’d done our work. But I could tell it wasn’t a happy conversation, it was more like, “I guess I’m done,” and I said, “Well now that IV is done and it came out so great, why don’t we start on V tomorrow?” And he lit up and said, “You really want to do another one?” And that’s when it turned into recording every day. It went from this feeling of “I can’t do it anymore” to “this is my reason to be.”
And “Aloha Oe” was just …
It felt like this was a similar sentiment, and it’s a song that he loved and he knew. With a lot of the songs, we’d have lyric sheets. He told me the story of the woman who wrote the song and was really into it, and I thought that would make him happy if that closed the circle.