Johnny Cash: Ride This Train

Johnny Cash
The Fabulous Johnny Cash (January 1959)

In October 1967 Johnny Cash was huddled deep inside the cold dark Nickajack Cave waiting to die. The Man in Black had spent 10 years in a hellish cycle of addiction and self-mortification, and he wanted to formalize his separation from God by crawling as far into the cave as he could, waiting for death to overtake him without God as witness. His wanted the thick, sinister intestine of his country to digest him finally, to dissolve him away. It didn’t work. His arrogance was rebuked by his faith, and he started scraping and crawling, crablike, until he staggered out of the cave hours later exhausted and confused. Soon after that he had his own hit television show.

From the moment he took his first Benzedrine tablet in 1957 until his attempted suicide in Nickajack Cave 10 years later, Johnny Cash’s musical output was more fertile and prolific than at any other period in his career. The artistic liberation given by Don Law (who lured him to Columbia Records with promises of freedom and money), as well as his new friendships with the Carter Family, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, and others seem to have sparked something in him that continued to crackle and flash even despite his new wealth and new addictions. So, in honor of Cash’s 70th birthday this year, Columbia Records is continuing with its excellent series of Cash reissues, and the latest batch chronicles this period, from his Columbia debut in 1958 until his classic duets with June Carter nine years later. All five albums are excellent, and the newly remastered discs are generously dosed with bonus tracks and incisive liner notes. I suspect most other labels would have served us a septuagenarian stew, a hodgepodge of compilations or tributes, so Columbia should be commended for favoring tidy authenticity over jumbled carpetbagging in celebrating the man’s eighth decade among us.

The Fabulous Johnny Cash

After Don Law stole Johnny Cash from Sun Records, a world of possibility began to open up in Cash’s recording career. Rather than remaining the indentured servant to Sam Phillips’ marketing schemes, Cash could now explore new vistas of honky-tonk, folk, and gospel. After his first Columbia single (“All Over Again” / “What Do I Care”) went top 10, Law presumably allowed his new boy a bit of freedom in constructing a full album of renegade tunes. Thus, Fabulous remains one of Cash’s finest grab-bag non-concept albums, a satisfying haul of tunes, all dominated by Cash’s cavernous voice and the signature chunka-guitar of Luther Perkins.

The album’s two hits — “Frankie’s Man, Johnny” and “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town” — are well-known tragedies which continue to inspire new generations of fans. But the real goodies include the talking gospel “Suppertime” (about the “greatest suppertime of all — with our Lord in Heaven”), the Cash-penned dirt-folk “Pickin’ Time” (cotton, not guitars), and the speedy Sons of the Pioneers classic “One More Ride” (in which a train-riding man rages against the dying of the light, and you still can’t tell if the singer is hobo or conductor). And hey, listen to it twice and you’ll fall in love with the uncharacteristically weepy ballad “I Still Miss Someone” (later a highlight of At Folsom Prison) and the unusually schlocky Jordanaire-inflected “Run Softly, Blue River”.

The bonus tracks are also wonderful. “Oh What a Dream (Take 1)” may be a record-collector’s fantasy (the first take of Cash’s first Columbia recording session), but it’s filled with Jordanaires and Luther Perkins, and fits in quite easily with the rest of the disc. And it’s theme — a reverie with angels and kisses and weddings — might be one of Cash’s only lyrics that’s directly aimed at the ladies in his vast audience. “Fool’s Hall of Fame” is a majestically tuneless cover that predates Cash’s induction into both the Country and Rock and Roll Halls of Fame, but on its face offers no evidence that he should be inducted into any of the three. And there’s so much more on the disc. Don Law obviously made a wise investment, and the reissue satisfyingly rocks the box.

Hymns by Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash says that he didn’t quit Sun because he wanted more money. He quit because he wanted to record gospel music. Well, probably he’s telling half-truths on both counts. But Columbia did grant him his very own gospel album in 1959, and it certainly comes across as a happy fulfillment of Don Law’s promise of artistic freedom.

On most of his non-gospel recordings, Cash’s striking baritone often sounds possessed by the gods, especially when he’s singing about murder and prison and struggle. But on this album something weird happens: he doesn’t use his voice to conjure the wrath or grace of God. Instead, he sounds alternately jocular and cautious, as if to stave off the possession of the awkward Spirit that gave him “Folsom Prison Blues” and “I Walk the Line”. For example, the opening track — a Cash-penned call-and-response ditty called “It Was Jesus” — is a lot of fun, and maybe inspirational in its airy homely way. But to a modern audience it is definitely more Ned Flanders than Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Same goes for “He’ll Be a Friend”, which turns Noah and Samson into comic-book characters.

On the other hand, “Are All the Children In” is a striking evocation of holiness that hinges on the vision of a poor farmer’s wife wondering if all her children are back in the house at the end of the night. And Cash does shine brightly — both in voice and lyrics — in his own new prayer “Lead Me Father”, a worker’s submission to God but not the boss. Two other highlights — an excellent arrangement of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and the wondrous stoic anthem “These Things Shall Pass” (which he didn’t play at the prisons, don’t ask me why) — make the album a worthwhile investment for Cash fans. The usual spare arrangements — Luther Perkins working his repetitive guitar magic over a subtle male chorus and Cash’s seismic voice — make all the songs endlessly programmable on your local jukebox. Gospel fans, on the other hand, might find it tough going.

Ride this Train

Inspired by his friend Merle Travis (whose Down Home is often regarded the first country concept album), Cash recorded the image-defining Ride This Train in 1960 and hasn’t stopped making his own great concept albums since. Contrary to what you’d expect, the album is not about trains. Instead it uses the train as transport — complete with sound effects — to take the listener on a tour of America, through space and time. His narration between songs, never drowned out by the loud trains behind him, is often as absorbing as the songs themselves.

Beginning with an amazing recitation of Native American tribe names, he then launches into the Merle Travis shovel-rhythm “Loading Coal” (written especially for the album), which creaks and groans with Cash’s authority. He takes on the voice of John Wesley Hardin in his own “Slow Rider”, then takes a tough turn through the Oregon timber in “Lumberjack” (the punch line: “Boy, ask a whistle pump. / I don’t know”). Other highlights include Tex Ritter’s “Boss Jack” (in which Cash takes on the voice of both slave and master in his hometown of Dyess, Arkansas), the naked tragedy “Dorraine of Ponchartrain”, and the nostalgic “When Papa Played the Dobro”.

The standout track, however, is “Going to Memphis” (“arranged and adapted by A. Lomax”), which gets real funky with chain-gang rhythm and one of the coolest vocal performances in Cash’s career (“Like a bitter weed, I’m a bad seed . . .”). Bonus tracks include Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Ballad of the Harpweaver”, the uncharacteristic sob story “Second Honeymoon” (“I’m alone on a second honeymoon”), and the minor novelty hit “Smiling Bill McCall” (a droll Nashville in-joke about hair loss). It’s a wonderful trip, and even if you’re riding blind between the baggage car and the mail car, even if you’re sprinting away from the railroad Pinkertons on your tail, these songs and narrations will stick to your ribs. Hell, Cash later even included a “Ride This Train” segment on his late ’60s variety show which also detailed the struggles, tragedies, and comedies of working men and women in America.

Orange Blossom Special

By 1965, America’s musical landscape had utterly changed. Three years earlier, Ray Charles had recorded an album, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, which not only popularized country music to a citified northern audience, but taught Nashville the value of adding strings and horns to its studio arrangements. (Hell, Cash himself taught Nashville a trick or two by adding latin horns to his seminal hit “Ring of Fire”.) Meanwhile this Jewish kid from the Iron Range was generating a national buzz by singing nasal protest anthems and breakup songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” in imitation of that red Woody Guthrie.

In July 1964, Cash played the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island, a move that announced his refusal to obey the political and musical dictates of Nashville. Needless to say, it was this last event that altered Johnny Cash irrevocably, and the 1965 release Orange Blossom Special is Cash’s first self-consciously “folk” album. It remains one of the outstanding LPs in his oeuvre, a fascinating batch of tunes that announces enthusiastically the two new loves of his life: June Carter and the music of Bob Dylan.

The title track is a seminal cover that jumps Ervin Rouse’s train and rides it down the Atlantic coast without looking back. Cash’s enthusiastic train noises (“whoo! whoo!”) and the funky sand-in-his-shoes vocal interplay toward the end (“I don’t care if I do ‘f I do ‘f I do ‘f I do”) continue to shake the national cerebellum with evocations of the joy in burning bridges.

Next comes “Long Black Veil”, and oh mercy does Cash conquer it. Seems that every generation has an artist who takes possession of “Long Black Veil” (the darkest cheating song ever written) and remakes it in his image. Lefty Frizzell made it swoop down on the comfy ’50s and juiced it for every tearjerking vocal nuance he could muster. Cash, on the other hand, sees the stoicism and honor in it, and his near-Biblical interpretation often became the highlight of his ’60s prison concerts. The studio version here is definitive, and wouldn’t be topped until Sally Timms wrapped her gorgeous British voice around it a couple decades later.

Then we get three-count-’em-three Bob Dylan songs (“It Ain’t Me Babe”, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”, and “Mama, You’ve Been on My Mind”), all of which sound just fine when retooled to fit Cash’s stately pace and sonorous pipes. “It Ain’t Me, Babe” became a top 10 country hit right around the same time the Turtles were pitching it to the pop audience, evidence that Cash could work miracles of commerce using just his voice and an eye for talent. (Also, the country audience was probably stimulated by the wonderful interplay of Cash’s voice and that of June Carter, who sings a very prominent “backup” here.)

Cash himself penned a couple new ones for the album, including the wonderful Dylanesque protest tune “All of God’s Children Ain’t Free” and a lusty evocative ode to a river, “You Wild Colorado” (“like a woman’s lips, you lure me”). Round this time Cash was smitten with June Carter, who pairs with him on several other tunes here. Indeed her throaty enthusiasm suffuses the entire album, whether rising like a distant mist in “Mama, You’ve Been On My Mind” or singing as an equal in “When It’s Springtime in Alaska (It’s Forty Below)”.

Cash’s dynastic union with the Carter family was just beginning, and his cover of their classic “Wildwood Flower” here is an obvious tribute to the new love of his life. His version is open-ended and spirited, but as with most of his covers, he tends to evoke the melody rather than sing it outright. And since “Wildwood Flower” is all about melody, he doesn’t steal the song from Mother Maybelle after all.

After an odd cover of “Danny Boy” (Jackie Wilson coulda told him the tune is more fun to sing than to hear) he closes the album with an astounding version of the Lilies of the Field gospel singalong “Amen”, which features a chorus of Carter angels, some trick piano, and a newly possessed Cash taking on the spirit. The song cuts everything on the Hymns by Johnny Cash album, and you won’t be able to stop yourself from singing along. The reissue adds three extra tracks, a folk train song (“Engine 143”), a good Charlie-Rich style love song (“(I’m Proud) The Baby is Mine”), and an early version of “Mama, You’ve Been on My Mind” featuring some ring-of-fire Mexicali horns. Fascinating and varied from beginning to end, Orange Blossom Special is one of the most exciting reissues of the year.

Carryin’ On with Johnny Cash and June Carter

Johnny Cash rarely sang about drinking or cheating, and when he did he cast his stories as mythopoetic allegories rather than personal tales of woe. He knew his resonant baritone was made for the biblical declamation rather than the confidential sob story. It took the big-mouthed woman June Carter to draw him out, and Carryin’ On is one of the most detailed, grounded, fun, straight-up country albums in his catalog.

For the first time, Cash openly declares himself a cheat, liar, and lovin’ ball of fire, and at last we’re back in the honky-tonks with the Man in Black. June, who by this time had discarded her “Aunt Polly” and “Little Junie” characters, was now a strong, throaty, persistent woman bent on taming an out-of-control pill-popping Cash. She was in love with him, and he was smitten by her even when he was strung out, shivering, and sweating on his hotel bed. Despite the pastoral photo on the cover (look how skinny Cash is!), their blossoming romance was shot through with grime, chaos, and anger. On top of that, both of them were enduring failed marriages on the side.

Yet the album is nonstop fun, a joyous ride on the love train that even makes their spats and conflicts droll and resonant. The album consists entirely of Johnny and June trading loud and enthusiastic lines as speedy honky-tonk prods them on. They fight, they kiss, they yell, they make out, all with an undeniable chemistry that lifts the spirits at the same time it churns the butter.The album’s two big hits (“Long-Legged Guitar Man” and “Jackson”) have lost none of their edge over the past 35 years, and you can even dance to ’em!

The two lovebirds cowrote a beautiful class-warfare love song, “Shantytown”, which tackles the same love-across-the-tracks themes that Johnny Rivers gave us a year earlier in “Poor Side of Town”. Then they rewrite it again (even using the same shantytown melody!) in “No, No, No” — another classic.

The Carter Family’s “Fast Boat to Syndey” and Richard Farina’s tragicomic “Pack Up Your Sorrows” are wonderful arguments for cheating and grief. Two Ray Charles tunes (“I Got a Woman” and “What’d I Say”) transcend the honky tonks and head into pure rock and roll territory, and your eyes will light up when you hear them. And there’s a bunch more great tunes (check out “Oh What a Good Thing We Had” and “You’ll Be Alright”).

This is one of the best love-chaos duet albums ever recorded, deserving a place alongside Richard and Linda Thompson’s Shoot Out the Lights and X’s Wild Gift. The reissue is a revelation, and the fact that Johnny and June are still married says more about their mutual stoicism and spirituality than anything else.

When Cash stumbled out of Nickajack Cave a couple months after recording this album, June was waiting for him, along with his mother. He went on to record two prison albums the next year (At Folsom Prison and At San Quentin, both currently available on Columbia Records) and host his own Nashville-based television variety show, which became enormously popular. He married June in 1968, and a year later he crossed over into the pop charts with the bleeped Shel Silverstein goof “A Boy Named Sue”. He went from darkness to the top of the world within a few months. Sure, he didn’t stay there — nobody does — but he secured his permanent position as one of America’s holy geniuses, and nobody’s gonna deny him that today.