Album Review: I Walk the Line (Soundtrack) – Johnny Cash

Posted: October 4, 2013 in 1970's, 3/5, 4/5, Artist, Country, Johnny Cash
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I Walk the Line Soundtrack1970 was a busy year for Cash.  His TV show was humming, he’d had another hit with If I Were a Carpenter, and his new wife June had given birth to their son, John.  If his first ten years at Columbia had shown anything, it was his restlessness and desire to try new things.  Thus, when he was asked to record a new version of I Walk the Line for a Gregory Peck film, Cash responded by recording the whole soundtrack.

I Walk the Line, then, is a new venture for Cash.  He had tried his hand at a few theme songs (Johnny Yuma, Bonanza, Five Minutes to Live and The Sons of Katie Elder), but never a full soundtrack.  The story is a dark one that would have appealed to Johnny’s sensibilities.  Peck played a sheriff drawn from his wife to a younger woman, only to find his world unravel around him.  Meaty stuff that played to Cash’s knack for tales of heartbreak and loss.

The full album gives us 11 tracks: two re-recordings of past tunes, six new tunes, a couple of instrumental versions, and a medley of hymns.  Most notable on I Walk the Line is the opener, Flesh and Blood, which went straight to no. 1.  Having first heard his 1990’s live recording with Willie Nelson, I’ve always seen this ballad as a romantic tale of love and devotion.  Revisiting the original recording in the context of the film, it’s far more than that.  The pastoral vision of nature supported by the casual backing of strings and choirs is ultimately played against a deep, sexual longing.

That lays the foundation, then for many of the tales told on the album.  This Town is a laid-back boom-chicka-boom about leaving town; hungry is an acoustic ballad about a man driven mad in boredom as he longs for a new woman; and, in This Side of the Law, Cash wrestles with the moral ambiguity that can come from poverty.  Rounded out with Cash’s mellowest version of I Walk the Line, the first side plays on the moral tension of the film’s story.

World's Gonna Fall On YouSide two moves from tension to destruction.  It begins with love, first with a syrupy instrumental version of Flesh and Blood, then with a re-recording of Cause I Love You, here sung simply by Cash with only his acoustic guitar, and then reprised in another syrupy instrumental.  Soon the romance crumbles, though.  The World’s Gonna Fall on You is a unique spoken word piece, rendered as pure paranoia as our hero is wrecked by his decisions. Face of Despair is another acoustic ballad, this time with a wise old figure pondering the hardness of life.  The final track, a medley of Standing on the Promises and Amazing Grace, is a sharp turn.  Sung with the Carters to an out-of-tune piano, it sounds just like walking into a little country church.  The group vocal at the end of the story serves as Greek chorus, calling the listener to the straight and narrow, rather than the rocky road of lust and abandon.

The album certainly has its flaws.  Several tunes are wooden, as Cash awkwardly crams the story into song, particularly on This Side of the Law.  Likewise, the orchestral instrumentals were a necessary evil on soundtracks of the day (take the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night and Help soundtracks, for example), and they’re arrangements I would never listen to otherwise.  That said, there is much to be appreciated here.  Johnny’s relaxed, early 70s style plays very well.  ‘Cause I Love You matches if not exceeds the quality of his original, unearthing one of his most sensitive lyrics ever:

I’ll be right beside you
No matter where you travel
I’ll be there to cheer you
Till the sun comes shinin’ through
If we’re ever parted
I will keep the tie that binds us
And I’ll never let it break
’Cause I love you

Face of Despair is equally weighty, and would have been a worthy candidate for his latter-day recordings with Rick Rubin.  While the other songs on this album may be forgettable, they are all enjoyable.  For me, that makes for a pretty good album, especially in a year that had already produced two LPs had some solid singles.  And, of course, this album is a worthwhile addition to Cash’s catalog if only for the great single, Flesh and Blood.  Just imagine if Cash had only re-recorded “I Walk the Line” and left it at that…


Other Tracks from the Era:

  • I Walk the Line (extended)/Cause I Love You (String Instrumental)/Amazing Grace – Bear Records released this album with two bonus tracks and one different version.  I Walk the Line runs 30 seconds longer, Cause I Love You is a 30 second string version, and then we’re given Amazing Grace without the Standing on the Promises intro.
  • Live at the White House – April 17, 1970 was a monumental day: after an onboard fire that threatened the mission, the Apollo 13 landed safely. On that same day, Johnny was asked to play at the White House for President Nixon.  Nixon saw the Apollo landing as a defining moment in history: “When machines go wrong, in America, we have people that can come up to the mark.” After the event, though, I’m sure Nixon thought he must have requested the wrong performer. (At the outset, he admitted, “I’m not an expert on his music.  Incidentally, I found that out when I began to tell him what to sing.” He had requested Merle Haggard and Guy Drake tunes.)  Johnny’s set opens innocuously enough with the big hit, A Boy Named Sue, politely self-censored, just as with Madison Square Garden.  He then rolls out a string of songs about rural life: Five Feet High and Rising, Pickin’ Time, Wreck of the Old ’97, and the obscure Lumberjack from 1960’s Ride This Train. Halfway through the show, though, things get uncomfortable.  Even in his most indulgent days, Johnny always had a social consciousness.  His understanding of poverty that permeates his songs of American life says so.  His sense of justice comes to the fore, though when he brings out Jesus Was a Carpenter and What is Truth?  These songs, both released over the past year, were important to him because he felt “the country needed songs, religious songs, that said something for the people today, especially the younger people.”  Ironically, it was his glitzy variety show, airing on ABC at the time, which made him realize this.  The letters that flooded his mailbox spoke of the hardships people were facing in this new modern world, particularly as the Vietnam war dragged on.  So it is that Johnny sings the wonderful Jesus was a Carpenter, which paints Jesus as closer to hippies and the homeless than to wealthy churchgoers in mighty cathedrals.  Then, with the 1970 b-side, What is Truth, we see Cash’s great boldness.  Although his wealth and fame might place him amongst of the establishment, Cash stands squarely on the side of the young rebels Nixon hated so much, singing a song that speaks against Vietnam and pleads for the future of America’s youth.  With that, Johnny then closes with a string of hymns: Peace in the Valley, Water into Wine, Were You There, Daddy Sang Bass, and The Old Account.  The recording quality is lacking and none of these are definitive versions, but what makes this live set so important is its context. When Johnny Cash was given the opportunity to sing for the President, rather than acting as a gentle jukebox, he played the prophet, singing for the poor and the broken and asking for peace.  The set is now available on Bootleg Vol. III.

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