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Life and Death

Country legends Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard seize life and confront death on extraordinary new albums.



I've always been more than a little wary of Johnny Cash's Rick Rubin-produced work for the American Recordings label, a series of albums that began in 1994 and has continued past Cash's 2003 death.

This Cash — probably now more familiar to more people than anything other than "I Walk the Line," "Ring of Fire," and Live at Folsom Prison — is the Man in Black, the gunslinger who shot a man in Reno just to watch him die, the upraised middle finger adorning a million dorm-room walls. All of that is the real Johnny Cash. But so is "Daddy Sang Bass," about homely family sing-alongs, "Pickin' Time," about life on a subsistence farm, and "Big River," about courtship up and down the Mississippi. Cash's life and work was too big and rich to be reduced to anyone's easy outlaw hero.

American VI: Ain't No Grave — the latest and, I presume, the last in the series — is unbearable but not in the way I feared. There's something ghoulish in the opening title track, a traditional number that Rubin ornaments with portentous guitar and clattering, ghostly percussion and in which Cash begins with, "There ain't no grave that can hold my body down/When I hear that trumpet sound I'm gonna rise right out of the ground."

But as the album unfurls, it becomes clear just how much Cash himself is in control of the message. Recorded in 2002 and 2003, when Cash knew the end was near, this is an intentional rather than accidental final testament. And "Ain't No Grave" doesn't represent defiance but Christian faith. He'll rise not to deny death but to greet his parents on the other side. It's there in his take on Sheryl Crow's "Redemption Day" and in his own humble arrangement of a biblical verse ("I Corinthians 15:55").

Even more secular titles shade into this territory: "Can't Help But Wonder Where I'm Bound," "Satisfied Mind," "I Don't Hurt Anymore." This album isn't the result of anyone else's death cult but the sound of one man making a personal peace with an inevitable he knows is imminent. The cornerstone: a tough, contented reading of old friend Kris Kristofferson's "For the Good Times" — "Don't look so sad/I know it's over/But life goes on/And this old world will keep on turning/Let's just be glad/We had some time to spend together."

American VI is perhaps one of the rarest things in music — a great death album. But as startling a document as it is, it's more something to bear witness to than to return to. For sustained listening, try a companion piece from one of Cash's compatriots: Merle Haggard's I Am What I Am, a great life album.

The reactionary and cornball both happily at home in his music, Haggard's always lacked the cool cachet of Cash — the man in black with rockabilly roots — or Willie Nelson — the hippie-friendly marijuana fan from outlaw Austin. But those are the only country artists of his generation who can match Haggard for stature or longevity.

These days, aging legends cling to relevance with high-concept help. Get a young star to produce you. Cover a bunch of high-profile songwriters. Hook up with a hip rock label that can market you to a new audience. At the very least, re-record stuff from your own back catalog.

But ornery old Merle Haggard, God bless him, wants nothing to do with any of that mess. And he doesn't need it. I Am What I Am was created at Haggard's Northern California home studio, with longtime associate Lou Bradley co-producing. It was recorded with his road band, featuring wife Theresa on vocals and 17-year-old son Ben on guitar. Eleven of 12 titles are new, original songs.

The result is reportedly Haggard's 76th album in his 73 years. It's his best since, at least, 2000's If I Could Only Fly and might even be his best studio album since, um, I dunno, 1981? Ever?

I Am What I Am is autumnal but still optimistic. The Western swing and even straight jazz influences that have always underpinned his music are pushed out front. It has a zip to it, even when it lazes. And though Haggard's voice is not undiminished, some righteous combination of music and contentment have rallied him. He playfully high-steps to the end of a verse on "Live and Love Always." He alternately growls and swoons on "Mexican Bands," about his love for them.

Haggard survived a bout with lung cancer in 2008, but on I Am What I Am the sunset is visible but still aways off. "The end of the road" represents the location of a warm, memory-filled family home. And an empty nest is an opportunity to reinvigorate marital love.

There are maybe a couple of ill-fitting or forgettable songs, but the wisdom, charm, and easeful musicality win out. Haggard's favorite adjective here is "old," as in "An old love's even sweeter/That old saying's really true" or "I love listening to old Mexican bands." He looks back with sharp detail on the autobiographical "Old Tanker Train" ("The old tanker train/From down on the river/With Southern Pacific and Santa Fe names/Would rumble and rattle the old boxcar we lived in/And I was a kid then and I loved that old train") and with knowing experience on "Pretty When It's New," which delicately taps into so many tones — rueful, sardonic, yearning, wistful.

Haggard's good-old-days laments (such as the opening "I've Seen It Go Away") work a lot better at 73 than they did at 31 and not just because we're more forgiving of the nostalgia of the aged. Haggard's looks back are more generous now, more open.

I Am What I Am doesn't sound like a final testament. It sounds like a late-life renewal with the potential for encores plenty. Here's hoping he gets the chance to top it.

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