LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - When producer Rick Rubin awkwardly describes Johnny Cash's latest album as "otherworldly," he's not kidding.
The country titan has been dead for almost seven years, and Rubin's American Recordings label will mark the 78th anniversary of Cash's birth on Friday next week by releasing a second posthumous album of new material.
"American VI: Ain't No Grave" is the sixth and final installment in a series of acoustic-oriented albums that sparked one of the unlikeliest comebacks in living memory.
Rubin, the hirsute tastemaker who worked with speed-metal band Slayer and rap trio the Beastie Boys, rescued Cash from a creative and commercial slump in 1993. Together they pored over hundreds of spirituals, folk tunes and challenging rock material by Soundgarden and Nine Inch Nails.
Cash, suffering from a range of ailments, instantly became the darling of hipster rockers who reveled in his well-deserved outlaw image. The pop-leaning country music establishment, meanwhile, looked down on his critical success. The albums were not huge sellers, but yielded a total of six Grammys,
The new album comes from the same sessions as "American V: A Hundred Highways," which was released in 2006 and became Cash's first pop chart-topper in 37 years. They were recorded at Cash's lakeside house near Nashville right up until his death in September 2003, aged 71.
"I feel like 'V' is a little more depressing or a little more about death, and 'VI' seems to be more of a phoenix rising from the ashes," Rubin told Reuters in a recent interview.
"After having not listened to this material for a long time, and hearing it fresh and hearing his voice and his commanding presence and knowing that people haven't heard this material before, it does seem like a voice coming from another place. I don't know if I'm explaining it well! It feels otherworldly."
Rubin held back the release of "VI" so that it would not have to compete with all the Cash reissues in the marketplace.
The new album features the Cash original "1 Corinthians: 15:55," whose opening lines are derived from the titular bible verse: "Oh death, where is thy sting? Oh grave, where is thy victory?"
Knowing that Cash was physically enfeebled if still mentally agile in his last months, it's tempting to read deathly premonitions into the songs -- even if they do not exist. Like the title of "I Don't Hurt Anymore," or the line "Life goes on and this whole world will keep turning" in Kris Kristofferson's "For the Good Times."
Both of those were chosen by Cash, while Rubin suggested to him the title track, a traditional field holler piece. Other tunes include Sheryl Crow's "Redemption Day."
Crow said Cash frequently called her on the phone to gain insights into the lyrics, an experience she described as one of the greatest of her life.
"If he was going to sing a song, it was going to be a part of his molecular makeup," she told Reuters. "He was going to deliver it as if he wrote it. The questions that he asked and his concern for whether I would like what he was doing, it was just really humbling."
While Cash's recordings with Rubin achieved glowing praise at the time, there has been some contrarian grumbling recently. Bob Dylan last year told Rolling Stone the series was "notorious low-grade stuff."
"Interesting," said Rubin, who is nominally Dylan's boss as co-chairman of Columbia Records. "I had not seen that. Wow, interesting!"
The albums also depicted Cash in a Gothic, dark fashion, perhaps most notably with his grim remake of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt" and the accompanying Grammy-winning video. Cash's friends said this was not a true representation of his fun personality.
Rubin pleads guilty as charged, saying he wanted to perpetuate Cash's image as the stern "Man in Black" who saves mankind, rather than as the goofball behind "A Boy Named Sue" and "Everybody Loves a Nut."
"I really thought of him more as a mythological figure than as the flesh-and-blood funny guy," Rubin said.
A new image for fans to consider is the one on the cover: a boyhood photo of a smiling Cash, years before Sun Records owner Sam Phillips first called him Johnny.
"I feel like this album is a rebirth in some ways because I don't think anyone's expecting a great new Johnny Cash record at this point," Rubin said. "But to see that image, it just seems like a great bookend for his career. It's like an end and a new beginning."
Editing by Jill Serjeant