Album of the Day — May 29
Johnny Cash — I Walk the Line
Johnny Cash — I Walk the Line
I Walk the Line
Today is my mother’s birthday.
I don’t know how old she would’ve been.
The fact that I can name every Replacements record, in order by year, and record label (and if I try — producer), takes up the space reserved for things like family members ages and birthdays.
I called my father last year a day after his birthday believing it was his birthday. He was so kind he didn’t bother to tell me it was the day before.
I’m a monster.
Anyway, Mom loved country music. Growing up we were subjected to Johnny Cash, George Jones, Tammy Wynette, Dolly Parton, Conway Twitty (which makes the Family Guy references so much funnier), etc. & I guess all things considered, not a bad jukebox to grow up with … before you discover your tastes.
Admittedly, I didn’t like any of them … except for Dolly Parton & Cash.
I. Loved. Johnny Cash.
While I had no idea what “Ring of Fire” was about (although I would learn) … but oh, how I loved that song. I still do. It’s not on this album but it was my gateway song to “I Walk the Line.” It was those two songs that roped me into a lifetime of very deep respect for “the man in black.”
In 1964, he was just coming off a #1 country album, Ring of Fire: The Best of Johnny Cash. So following it up with something big was important, and as Cash would prove time and time again throughout his career, he seldom, if ever, failed to deliver or disappoint.
Ten months after that #1 greatest hits album Johnny Cash delivered I Walk the Line.
Half of the songs are written by Cash alone, one written with his brother Roy, one with Norman Blake and Bob Johnson, and the rest were covers. While he was still backed by the Tennesse Two — Luther Perkins on lead guitar and Marshall Grant on bass — the rest of I Walk the Line was loaded with A-list session musicians, including the legendary Carter Family providing background vocals.
The album was produced by the legendary Don Law — the guy who produced Robert Johnson’s only recordings. The Johnson recordings aren’t technically great, but those songs reveal a rawness, a texture, and a power. That’s what Don Law could capture.
It’s what he captured with Bob Wills on the song “San Antonio Rose”, which would become his signature song. It’s what he caught with Marty Robbins’ on “El Paso”, and on Jimmy Dean’s “Big Bad John” — which both went on to become hits on both the country AND pop music charts. Now it’s almost expected for country acts to crossover into pop territory … in the late ‘50s/early ’60s it was almost very rare.
Don Law was critical in re-establishing the commercial viability of country music from the late ’50s on.
The title track “I Walk the Line” was first written and recorded in 1956 for Sun Records and became Cash’s first #1 country hit. And this song would be recorded many times throughout his life, by many artists, and each time “I Walk the Line” would be a hit. Good songs have a way of doing that.
With that kind of talent in the studio and behind the board, it’s no wonder that both critics and fans embraced I Walk the Line. It’s this album that would mark a tectonic shift in Johnny Cash’s career. This album marks the starting “line” of the “peak Cash” era — that would last until around 1980.
Throughout my Mom’s life, she tried to maneuver me to a similar starting “line.” I never paid much attention and drew my own, which was more fluid. That didn’t always sit so well with my mother.
Mom was more Norman Rockwell … I was more Al Hirshfeld.
As I grew older and became less “manageable”, when we couldn’t see eye-to-eye we would turn to music to diffuse the situation. And often it would be Johnny Cash who would provide the musical detente’. We seldom resolved much … we’d sequester the conflict and their underlying emotions … and then release them later, often in a sarcastic and passive-aggressive manner.
Every family has their coping mechanisms.
Eventually, I became aware that “I Walk the Line” is a love song — an homage’ that John wrote for his wife about remaining faithful. But the song also refers to personal responsibility, avoiding temptation and criminal behavior — and those fall under a mother’s purview. I didn’t always walk that line but not for lack of trying, lack of judgment.
I had found my line to walk by the time my Mom passed away. I believe that she accepted this and it made her happy, in her way … although if she were still alive, I am 110% certain she would say: “Why couldn’t you have found it earlier?”
Mom walked her line — I walked mine — parallel lines never connect.
After Johnny Cash hit his nadir in the ’80s Rick Rubin resuscitated his career by producing the American Recordings series beginning in the early ’90s.
Thanks to Rick Rubin, The line that had all but been erased was re-drawn. To be fair, it was etched in stone from 1994 until he died in 2003.
There is no denying that early Johnny Cash shaped him. But, if you’re interested in understanding the artist that he became, the man and the artist that we know now, it starts here on I Walk the Line.
Happy Birthday, Mom.