/ I walk the line, Sun Records, 1956
The incomparable. The magnificent. The mighty. Even the fabulous. Johnny Cash.
I’m a sucker for Walk the line, James Mangold’s film of 2005, its mythologising of the Johnny Cash story. I was a fan of the Man in Black’s songwriting and delivery before seeing it; I’ve been an even bigger fan since (and it has to be said of Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon for their mesmeric acting in the lead roles). Every time I watch it I go back to the records. Back to the Sun recordings, and forward to the American recordings, and stopping off for the prison recordings in between. Fifty years of being able to put something down which would stop listeners in their tracks; that’s a rare achievement, possibly unique.
We have a lot to thank Rick Rubin for, in terms of rescuing a drifting or drifted career. Together he and Cash created the template that other once-greats have tried to follow, though mostly with nothing like as much success. Which is not to say that the American recordings are choice throughout; although the fourth volume The man comes around contains ‘Hurt’, it also presents versions of ‘Bridge over troubled water’, ‘First time ever I saw your face’, and ‘In my life’ that to my mind either struggle to add to the originals or butcher them; not only that, but both ‘Danny boy’ and ‘We’ll meet again’ get wheeled out. Sentiment was by then entering into a project which had started off so unsentimentally twelve years previously with songs as tragicomically hard as Cash’s own ‘Delia’s gone’ and Loudon Wainwright III’s ‘The man who couldn’t cry’.
The best of Cash’s own songs on the American recordings have the perfect storytelling economy that he established with Sun recordings like ‘Folsom Prison blues’ – how could you better the punch of lines like ‘But I shot a man in Reno / Just to watch him die’)? Like ‘Folsom Prison blues’, the creation of ‘Get rhythm’ is dramatised in Walk the line. The unknown John R. Cash, not long out of the army, spots a shoeshine boy hard at work on the street in Memphis, marks the image, hears the rhythm, puts the two together, and a song is born. The Tennessee Two add a suitably rhythmic supportive framework; there’s Cash-like economy in Luther Perkins’ lead guitar break, which sings out a few birdlike phrases before swiftly returning the limelight to Johnny.
And who cannot at some point in their lives testify to rhythm having been the enemy of the blues?
Photograph by Mike Logan via Flickr.