I Walk the LineWe’re now in 1964 and are hitting what, in my opinion, is the sweet spot of Cash’s 1960s output. Johnny Cash is best known for the sparse boom-chicka-boom sound of his Sun years, but over the course of his 50-year recording career, his sound was quite diverse, with varying degrees of success. I would argue that he had four definitive eras:

  1. The boom-chicka-boom sound developed in the 50s at Sun Records featuring Luther’s minimal lead and rhythm playing, Marshall’s tick-tock bass, and Johnny’s percussive approach to acoustic guitar backing. The young Cash’s voice was clear and evocative of deep loneliness.
  2. The more refined mid-60s sound which added WS Holland’s fiery snare drum sound to round out the Tennessee Three, as well as the broader sonic palette of Bob Johnson on acoustic guitar (and other instruments), the harmonies of the Carter Family (and sometimes the Statler Brothers), and the production flourishes – ranging from bluegrass dobro sounds to Mexican style brass – of Don Law and Frank Jones. During this period, Cash’s vocals alternated between a relaxed baritone, to a wild and tempestuous growl, likely due to his drug abuse.
  3. The softer, acoustic approach of his early-mid 70s output which allowed for a more story-oriented songwriting style. The richness of Cash’s baritone was most evident in this era.
  4. The revisionist approach of his 90s work with Rick Rubin alternating between solo acoustic numbers and deconstructionist approaches to band performances. In the early days, Rubin simply put Cash in front of a mic and hit record. As Johnny grew increasingly frail, Rubin kept him relaxed by him recording him with his old friends in Nashville, and then stitched together the best takes overtop of new musical beds made by many of Rubin’s friends from Hollywood’s rock and alternative circles. Rubin made effective use of Cash’s increasingly frail voice with dramatic results.

My disposition against Cash’s syrupy and over-orchestrated sounds, which reared its ugly head as early as 1957 but rose to the fore in the mid-70s through the 80s, is obvious. That said, I would argue that there is much to be enjoyed in Cash’s music throughout his career.

Within this framework, I Walk the Line, Cash’s first release of 1964, represents the beginning of a new golden age for Cash. I love every one of his first five releases for Columbia, but each one exists as a creative experiment. Around 1961, almost 18 months had passed before the release of the blander-than-bland Hymns from the Heart, with only a few singles of varying quality to satiate Cash’s fans through the drought. 1962’s Sound of Johnny Cash was a turn for the positive, and then 1963 was a revelation: the classic sound of the Tennessee Three emerged on Blood, Sweat and Tears and a string of classic singles – Busted, Ring of Fire, and (to a lesser degree) The Matador. Sadly, the momentum was broken with two interesting, but inessential releases: the Christmas Spirit and the Carter Family’s Keep on the Sunny Side.

I Walk the Line, however, is the first of four absolutely classic albums which, along with Blood, Sweat and Tears, are the definitive representations of the 60’s Cash studio sound. In some ways, I Walk the Line is a good old cash grab – for the most part it’s Cash recording many of his Sun hits for his new label, Columbia. But it ends up being much more than that.

I Walk the Line features three main types of songs:

Faithful re-recordings of the originals: I Walk the Line, Folsom Prison Blues, Give My Love to Rose, Hey Porter, and Big River all fall into this category. These are his big hits with added drums and slightly more acoustic guitar than with Sam Phillips. In concerts at the time, he played most of these songs fast and furious, with Holland’s snare rocketing them along. These versions tend to be casual and off-hand, with a solid vocal delivery from Cash in each case. While none of these surpass the originals, they are as good a re-recording as could be imagined.

Re-interpretations of the originals: I Still Miss Someone, Wreck of the Old ’97. These two – the first a hit on his first Columbia album, the other a Sun single – are re-done with an acoustic, dobro-led sound courtesy of Norman Blake. Again, I wouldn’t pick these over the originals, but they are interesting and highly listenable.

New songs: Bad News, Understand Your Man, Still in Town, Goodbye Little Darlin’ Goodbye, and Troublesome Waters. In these five originals you really get a full picture of the struggle Cash was going through at the time. You have two classic heartbreakers that match any of his tearjearker staples from the era: Still in Town comes from Harland Howard and Hank Cochran who wrote Patsy Cline’s I Fall to Pieces and Cash’s recent hit Busted, while Goodbye was an old Gene Autry tune.

Bad News and Understand Your Man, though, are just plain shocking. Bad News is comical at times, with Cash literally snorting his way through while the Carters harmonize. Yet Cash’s humour, which was always on hand in concert, sounds on the edge and dangerous here. On Understand Your Man, he is at his most bitter and vitriolic:

You’d just say the same old things that you be sayin’ all along/ Just lay there in your bed and keep your mouth shut ‘Til I’m gone/ Don’t give me that old familiar cryin’ cussin’ moan/ Understand your man/ I’m tired of you bad mouthin’/ Understand your man.

While we know the Cash who “shot a man in Reno just to watch him die” was a character, you can’t help but think this brutal misogynist was a reflection of his darker feelings towards his increasingly estranged wife, Vivian. I can’t imagine a cheating, drug-addled Cash was a very nice man to be married to.

His gospel choice, then, is simply revelatory. Having just completed an album of Carter songs, he now turns again to their catalogue with Troublesome Waters:

When troublesome waters are rolling so high I’ll lift up my voice and to heaven I’ll cry
My Lord I am trusting give guidance to me and steady my boat on life’s troubled sea

The Cash of 1964 was obviously a troubled man and, as we have seen elsewhere in his 60s output, looking to the faith of his childhood for refuge and redemption.

There’s not much else to be said about this release. The production is excellent, a taut and tasteful example of Cash’s 60s sound at its best. The trumpets heard on Ring of Fire, and exaggerated on The Matador, fit perfectly on Understand Your Man. The rest is the full sound of the Tennessee Three, with frequent addition of dobro, and even a gorgeous steel lead on Still in Town (standard fare for country music, but a rarity for Cash). All in all, a great 60s Cash album.

4.5/5

Other tracks from the era:

  • Dark as a Dungeon: This beautiful waltz, featuring more mariachi trumpets, was a fitting b-side for the #1 hit, Understand Your Man. It’s absolutely gorgeous and made a perfect staple for his many prison concerts over the years.
  • Hammer and Nails – This one was the b-side to Wreck of the Old ’97. With a banjo-led arrangement, this was the first release by Cash’s new protégés, the Statler Brothers. To be honest, I always found the Statlers to be too straight in their arrangements for my taste, but they were the equals of many other gospel quartets. Here they sing a patriotic tale narrated by Cash.
  • Bad News – A fake live version was released on the Kentucky Derby Day compilation. Let’s just say the announcer’s shrill voice makes June Carter sound warm and mellifluous! The release also features fake live versions of Hammers and Nails, June’s Tall Loverman, and, ironically, Take My Ring off Your Finger by June’s ex-husband Carl Smith. Skip this release and track down the originals instead.

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