It’s near impossible to look back through music history and not find the imposing figure of Johnny Cash staring you down. His force, influence and persona are now the stuff of legend – a legend born out of Sam Phillips’ Sun Studios in Memphis Tennessee, and a legend born from early studio albums like ‘Johnny Cash Sings The Songs That Made Him Famous’.
You could venture a guess and say that the work of Johnny Cash was what Hank Williams had in mind for his genre: simplicity without simply depending on derived song structures; a sense of the man behind the lyric; and a genuine connection between the singer and the vast expanse that is the Southern United States. Cash had it all from the beginning, and perhaps most importantly he put himself into the music at a time before the tag of ‘country’ came to be synonymous with conveyor belt and impersonal type songwriting – think Haven Hamilton in Robert Altman’s classic film ‘Nashville’.
‘Sings The Songs’ finds Johnny Cash near the beginning of his career, and although it’s not the most dynamic work he ever produced, tracks like ‘Walk The Line’ make it difficult to be too judgmental. Perhaps more than any other tune released throughout his career, ‘Walk The Line’ has come to represent the legacy of Johnny Cash. “Steady like a train, sharp like a razor” as his sound is described in the film named after the track.
‘Walk The Line’ presents simple instrumentation in terms of guitar and bass lines, and that signature muted strumming. This style of percussive strumming was born from Sam Phillips’ solution to counteract the rule banning drum kits on stage at the Grand Ole’ Opry in Nashville. He wrapped a one dollar note around the neck of Cash’s guitar in the studio to simulate the sound of drumming, with the knowledge that it might be impossible to achieve on stage.
Beyond his telltale style though, it’s the lyric and the quality of vocal delivery on ‘Walk The Line’ that have really come to set J. R Cash apart as an artist. His voice possesses the low tones and timbre to rival that of Presley and Orbison, but there’s also something unique about the roughness and determined clarity in the voice of the man in black; a voice that gives lyrics like “I keep the ends’ out for the tie that binds, because you’re mine, I walk the line” so much more weight and dimension. He makes his intimidating presence felt and leaves questions hanging in the air as to the intention and motivation behind the lyrics. Is the man right on the edge of his mind? Or is he just a man pining and in love?
Throughout his career there was an ambiguous and often self-deprecating nature to Cash’s lyrics that hinted towards the depth and darkness behind the man and we feel the origins of this on ‘Sings The Songs’. ‘Train Of Love’ not only gives us one of the finest hooks of Cash’s career, but it also sees him step into lyrical territory that suggests a troubled and emasculated mindset – the presence of which in popular music at the time was extremely rare, if present at all.
“Every so often everybody’s baby gets the urge to roam, but everybody’s baby but mines’ coming home”.
Album closer, ‘Big River’, is another highlight. The tempo sees Cash and The Tennessee Two move into the rockabilly genre, and the quick fire vocal along with some of the darkest lyrical terrain covered serves to hint at what was to come on many of Cash’s future recordings.
Although his sound may not have been fully developed on this record, what we are privy to here is the arrival of a singer and songwriter before his time. Cash cut the figure of a rebel and an outlaw in a time before it was truly cool to do so. This record presents the origins of his character and quality, which over time would develop fully and show us just what Johnny Cash means to the history of music.Posted: April 5, 2012