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Johnny Cash Ride This Train (1960)

Ride+This+Train+albumridethistrainFrom guypetersreviews.ccom

Johnny Cash had always been a diligent writer and interpreter of train songs. Hence, it was no surprise that one of his earliest hits, “Hey Porter,” was a train song, while several others followed soon, like “Wreck of the Old ‘97” and his version of Hank Williams’ “I Hear That Lonesome Whistle Blow.”

He’d continue this trend not only throughout the ‘60’s (“Orange Blossom Special”), but up ‘til his American-years, with “Down There by the Train” (on American Recordings) and “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore” (on Unearthed). It’s not surprising either then, that in 1960 his first deliberately conceptual album was tied together by the train-motive. Contrary to what you might think, these songs are not about trains, as the original subtitle (deleted when the album was reissued) A Stirring Travelogue of America in Song and Story already suggested.

Basically, Ride This Train is a trip through an America of days gone by, when trains were the only means of transportation and a symbol of innovation, employment and liberty. The album paints a picture of mostly working men and woman, trying to make the best out of their misery or enjoying what was God-given, but the catch of it all is not that Cash describes the tales from a contemporary perspective, but by choosing to narrate through the respective protagonists.

As a result, Ride This Train offers a sprawling diversity of lives, voices and perspectives, the most remarkable aspect of it being that each song is introduced by a narration that starts with “Ride this train …”. Most of the time, the songs’ singers are the ones who introduce the songs, while others show interesting contrasts. Whereas the opening track (that starts after a rather clumsy introduction about the Indian heritage), “Loading Coal” – a song written especially for this album by Merle Travis -, deals with a coal miner trying to earn an honest living, it’s the legendary John Wesley Hardin who connects it to “Slow Rider.”

During “Lumberjack,” the Oregon based protagonist tells us about the life lessons he was taught being a high-climber (“I learned that a man’s gotta be a lot tougher than the timber he’s cuttin’ ”), while “Dorraine of Ponchartrain” tells us of a Nova Scotia Arcadian and his beloved. Actually, despite what you might’ve expected, Ride This Train might very well offer the most diverse batch of songs Cash had recorded yet, also on a musical level.

For the most part, the rather stiff rhythm of the Sun recordings is disbanded in favor of a looser, acoustic sound that continues the minimalism, but allows for some more frills (i.e. not just repetitive strumming). Or, during “When Papa Played the Dobro,” “Boss Jack” (a song introduced by the slave owner, but sung by the slave himself!), and “Old Doc Brown,” the music’s playful air of confidence is closer to country swing than the sturdy variation of before (probably because of the richer sound, featuring dobro and fiddle).

However, it’s probably “Going to Memphis” (a rerecording of which wound up on Unearthed) that steals the show. Carried on by the rattling of the ball & chains, it’s a song with attitude to spare, from the moans and groans of the prisoners, the piano-led, bluesy strut to Cash’s striking vocal performance and suitable lyrics (“Like a bitter weed, I’m a bad seed”).

So, the wide range of locations (it’s one hell of a trip: Kentucky, Oregon, Louisiana, Memphis, Iowa, etc), multitude of voices and great use of acoustic instruments are definitely plusses, but the narration parts just get tedious after a while. The first few times you hear these, you probably won’t mind as you’ll be considering it some sort of educational documentary, but after that you’ll wish he’d get to the damn songs a bit quicker.

Plus, subtract those parts, and how many minutes of music are you left with? Twenty, or twenty-five? It’s understandable why Cash himself considered Ride This Train one of his finest achievements of the sixties, but speaking for myself, I can do without the elaborate guidelines that disrupt the rhythm (even though the steam locomotive keeps goin’ on in the background) and flow of the generally fine songs. “Frustrating” is the word.

Note: The reissue of the American Milestones-series adds four bonus tracks (without narration): the conventional country-singles “Second Honeymoon” and “Smiling Bill McCall,” plus “The Fable of Willie Brown” and the previously unreleased “The Ballad of the Harpweaver.”

December 28, 2013 Posted by | Johnny Cash Ride This Train | | Leave a comment