Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Johnny Cash - Walking the Line: The Legendary Sun Recordings

Truthfully, for most of my life I have not been a big Johnny Cash fan. When he first came to pop
prominence with "A Boy Named Sue", I thought that the song was goofy and his voice was terrible. I have come to appreciate his voice for what it is (powerful, but certainly not a traditionally "good" voice in any sense of the word) and appreciate his contributions to the world of rock, country and pop. This 3-CD compilation of his work with Sun Records is among my favorite recordings of his, where he - along with the other early Sun artists - blended country, r'n'b and rock'n'roll to create their own sounds. His is a bit more country than some, which may be why I wasn't a fan for a while,  but I definitely dig it now!

Right off the bat we get the title cut, one that should need no introduction to anyone who knows anything about country or r'n'r. His minimalist approach - with the Tennessee Two, Luther Perkins of the sparsely melodic lead guitar and Marshall Grant on stand-up bass - is pretty different from the fuller sounds of rockers like Jerry Lee or Elvis, but is infectious regardless. He spits out rapid-fire lyrics in the upbeat "Get Rhythm", get a bit slower on "There You Go", continues with his train-rhythm in "Train of Love", gets a cross-over hit in the catchy "Cry! Cry! Cry!", raves-on in "Hey Porter!" and "So Doggone Lonesome" but then stalls with corny backing vocals on "Ballad of a Teenage Queen". He's back in the saddle with the rockin' rockabilly of "Big River", kinda has a Marty Robins' feel in "Guess Things Happen That Way", kinda of an Elvis style with the backing vocals in "The Ways of a Woman in Love", a country ballad in "I Forgot to Remember to Forget", there's the novelty-ish "Sugartime", "It's Just About Time" and "Katy Too", a rockabilly/gospel blend in "Belshazzar", a "Walk the Line" soundalike in "Life Goes On" and the first CD concludes with the love ballad "You're the Nearest Thing to Heaven".

The classic "Folsom Prison Blues" shows why it is one of the most covered songs of all time, with it's melodic guitar lines and lyrics that are both boastful and regretful. In a similar vein is the autobiographical "Luther Played the Boogie", while "Straight A's in Love" is a bit more straight rockabilly, "Home of the Blues" is more ballad-y (with Luther adding some by-now familiar-sounding riffs), Johnny trades vocals with himself on the slow, traditional-sounding "Port of Lonely Hearts", he goes for the lower reaches of his baritone in the somewhat more upbeat "Come In Stranger", "Country Boy" swings in a country style, and they sound pretty conventionally country in "Wide Open Road". Luther's muted guitar lines carry the slower "Don't Make Me Go", they get a bit jokey in the short, anti-liquor "Leave That Junk Alone" (in which, Johnny ironically sounds drunk), and go for the rockabilly rhythms in "Mean Eyed Cat", and mid-tempo Cash-styles in "Next in Line" and "Give My Love to Rose", they do a fine readings of a group of Hank Williams' tunes: "Cold, Cold Heart", "Hey Good Lookin'", "I Could Never Be Ashamed of You", "I Can't Help It (If I'm Still In Love With You", and "You Win Again".

CD 3 begins with several more traditional songs, such as Leadbelly's "Goodnight Irene", "Goodbye, Little Darlin', Goodbye", "The Wreck of the Old '97", "Blue Train", the skiffle hit "Rock Island Line", the gospel number "I Was There When It Happened", a ballad in "Remember Me", Jim Reeves' country hit "I Love You Because", the mellow "Born to Lose" that Ray Charles made famous, the bouncin' "New Mexico", a bit of corn in "Down the Street to 301" with kind of annoying backing vocals, the mid-tempo "Fools Hall of Fame", the snappy rockabilly of "If the Creek Don't Rise", Flatt and Scruggs' bluegrass hit "Doin' My Time", Charlie Rich's country number "Thanks a Lot" (not Ernest Tubb's), Don Gibson's hit "Oh Lonesome Me" (that he, ironically, did with June Carter), the maudlin "Story of a Broken Heart" and wrapping up with yet another train song "I Heard That Lonesome Whistle".

I really enjoy the sparseness of these early recordings, although I must admit that without drums, the songs are not as exciting as some of his contemporaries' releases. Still, fine examples of how much country and rock (and blues) crossed over in the early days of rock'n'roll.