Review: Ride This Train – Johnny Cash

Posted: February 1, 2013 in 1960's, 4/5, Country, Johnny Cash
Tags: , , , , , ,

Ride This TrainJohnny Cash proved his love for concept albums early on. Songs of Our Soil was a handful of tunes about rural life, and the subsequent Johnny Yuma was an EP of cowboy songs. Despite Ride This Train’s title, though, Cash’s fourth full-length for Columbia isn’t really about trains. Instead, it expands the themes of his first two concept records and builds them around an imaginary train ride across the South, both in geography and time.

Cash demonstrated his interest in trains early on with his Sun-era recording of The Wreck of the Old ’97, a tune that would become a staple in his live set. As that song demonstrated, the entire Cash sound is essentially built on the rhythm of an old steam train. Here, the rumbling and whistling of locomotion underlie Johnny’s deep baritone as he narrates a journey from state to state. Each story sets the stage for a song, of which there are eight in total.

The stories are already familiar ground for Cash: coal workers in Kentucky (Loading Coal), father-and-son lumberjacks in Oregon (Lumberjack), a 1788 Nova Scotian family seeking greener pastures on sugar plantations (Dorraine of Ponchartrain), corn farmers in Iowa (Old Doc Brown), and the cotton fields of his hometown, Dyess, Arkansas (Boss Jack). Some of the songs will shock modern ears, particularly the friendly slaveowner in Boss Jack – “Come on children bend your back, work a little faster, fill your sack, hitch up the wagon, take it to the gin, finish pickin’ before the winter sets in”. Likewise, the tempestuous Dorraine, storming off in a rowboat simply because she couldn’t take a joke (“Are you marrying me for money?” the impoverished narrator jests), only to drown as waves and rain overtake her boat is more silly than tragic.

Thus, while some tracks might sound dated, they once again serve as an effective gateway into Cash’s America. As already seen in his other releases, it’s a land of hardworking families often beset by tragedy, yet soldiering on and helping one another out (see the charitable physician in Old Doc Brown). There are bad boys too, both the fastest gun in the west (John Wesley Hardin in Slow Rider), and a man dying to break free of the chain gang in Going to Memphis. Just as the boom-chicka-boom sound drives his music forward, so too does the driving sound of the rails act as a metaphor for the ambition of the American dream. Slaves dream of being set free, impoverished farmers dream of prosperity and prisoners dream of freedom.

In the album’s opening dialogue, Cash reflects on the darker side of the American Dream. As he lists off the names of America’s native peoples, he comments, “It’s with a little regret that I think about how I pushed them back, crowded them out.” This is the tension of America. It’s a land of opportunity, where timbers ask to be felled, and corn grows higher than Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine could ever imagine. Yet it’s also a land of loss, violence and oppression. Cash was an early champion of aboriginal people’s rights, and opening a travelogue of America with a reminder of how it was stolen from American Indians would be a bold move today, let alone in 1960.

The music on this album was also a bold move for Cash. As soon as the first song kicks in, we hear a different sound. The intricate acoustic guitar picking on opener Loading Coal is beyond Luther’s ability. A quick check of the liner notes reveals the album is guested by Johnny Western, a member of Cash’s travelling road show. Western appears throughout, providing the opportunity for a uniquely acoustic album. Indeed only the single, Going to Memphis, harkens back to the Memphis rockabilly sound, complete with rollicking lead electric guitar. Elsewhere we’re treated to downhome fiddle (Old Doc Brown) and gorgeous resonator guitar (When Papa Played the Dobro). Going to Memphis also features stomping chains courtesy of none other than famed found-sound man Alan Lomax. Indeed, Rick Rubin must have used this track as a template for 2006’s God’s Gonna Cut You Down (also featured in a Chevy commercial).

In sum, we have an interesting album here. Cash continues to sing of his love for the South’s old ways, but expands his sonic palette. He also introduces the spoken word narration he would turn to throughout his career (and experimented with in the scrapped Ballad of the Harp Weaver a few months earlier). The downside is, with so much narration, this album is light on tunes, and not really one I might pull out just to listen to a song or two. Instead, it requires a solid listen from start to finish.  Your enjoyment, then, will depend on the commitment you give to this recording.

4/5

Other songs from the era:

  • The Fable Of Willie Brown – An outtake released on the Legacy edition of Ride This Train. While Cash didn’t write this one himself, when he sings of a heartbreaker finally tamed by a girl named June, you can’t help but wonder if he’s singing about a young married woman he was touring with at the time…
  • Smiling Bill McCall – Released as the b-side to Seasons of My Heart (which would be included later that year on Now There Was a Song!), this is Cash’s first stab at a humorous talking blues (think A Boy Named Sue). Here the humour is very black: a radio star tries to commit suicide because he’s only 4 feet tall and his listeners think he’s 6 foot plus. “I’d rather be in the river dead than to hear them laughing at my bald head.”

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