Monroe, Virginia; St Paul, Minnesota; Spencer, North Carolina; Danville, Virginia; I don’t think I own an album that is more in love with the USA, all its names, distances and possibilities than Johnny Cash Story Songs Of The Trains & Rivers; a 1969 compilation on Sun Records.
I picked this one up twelve years ago shortly after discovering the classic prison albums and the first couple of his Rick Rubin LPs, because it was on Sun and it was cheap – two great reasons I thought. Country was something of a novelty to me as it was always a bit of a swear word at home, being mostly associated with grown men dressing up as cowboys* and singing songs about orphans dying in the snow/faithful dogs expiring. That all changed when I copped a load of Johnny Cash’s outlaw cool.
Story Songs Of The Trains & Rivers is a bit of a misnomer, its heavily weighted in the trains department, light on the rivers**. Listening to it again I’m struck by how, for the most part, this is such simplistic music, The Tennessee Two providing plenty of Boom-chick-a-chick for your delectation. Tunes like ‘Hey Porter’ and its declaration of love for the South and the lovelorn ‘Train of Love’, work simply and well, but don’t really spark me. I like ‘Blue Train’ which Cash plundered for his own ‘Wanted Man’ later on, but the syrupy ‘Port of Lonely Hearts’ leaves me a little cold. On a similar tip, the co-write ‘Life Goes On’ is a dead ringer for ‘I Walk The Line’.
With this running order it takes a certain Hank Williams to strike that spark, ‘I Heard That Lonesome Whistle’ is a beautiful lament, which Cash adds just enough of himself to; I love the line, ‘All alone I bear the shame / I’m a number not a name’. Just pure class. Hmm, prison and trains? I wonder if you could combine them again Johnny?
The first of the three big hitters here is ‘Rock Island Line’, which in my ignorance I’d always assumed was a Lonnie Donegan song, let alone a song first recorded by John Lomax in a prison in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1934. Cash and Sun Records sidestep all this musicology nonsense by taking the Page/Plant route and sticking Cash down as the songwriter even though his version was first released 23 years after it had first been recorded. Anyway Cash’ version is as charismatic and perfectly sung as you’d expect, although Donegan’s slightly off-the-rails*^ take on it is the one for me.
Second up is ‘Big River’ which in its studio incarnation has a much more bluesy feel than the breakneck prison version I know, which sheds a few of the subtleties of Cash’ wry delivery in the name of velocity. This is a far more rueful proposition and the guitar chug is reminiscent of the Stones in their early days. I could listen to this track on repeat for weeks and not tire of it,
Now I taught the weeping willow how to cry,
And I showed the clouds how to cover up a clear blue sky.
And the tears that I cried for that woman are gonna flood you Big River.
Then I’m gonna sit right here until I die.
I met her accidentally in St. Paul (Minnesota).
And it tore me up every time I heard her drawl, Southern drawl.
Then I heard my dream was back Downstream cavortin’ in Davenport,
And I followed you, Big River, when you called.
Nothing worse when the primo hot chick of your dreams is cavortin’ in Davenport in my view. I mean it’s one thing to know she’s crusin’ around Winslow, Arizona trying to pick up talent, but I really draw the line at cavortin’ in Davenport. I mean hell I walk the line, why can’t she?
The last of the big hitters here is ‘The Wreck Of The Old 97’, another Johnny Cash original if you believe the sleeve, umm Johnny? the first commercial release of this track was 5 years before you were born. Anyway, minor quibbles aside this was almost my favourite track from At San Quentin, certainly the only track fast enough to make it onto my ‘Jog, Piggy! Jog!’ exercise playlist^, the live version actually has one of my fave scorching guitar solos on it too – I can’t remember without reading Cash again if he was clean at the time, but it sure sounded like an amphetamine and adrenalin charge to me. The version here on Story Songs Of The Trains & Rivers suffers from being a bit too well-mannered and, well, pedestrian by comparison. The live version sounded literally like a train coming off the rails*^ this one doesn’t. Incidentally I had no idea that ‘Wreck…’ was an entirely true story until today.
There is some great here, some good and some so-so, but I guess that some of the music here is a bit too much anchored in its’ time to really soar now. I was actually surprised to stumble across this list of songs inspired by trains (sod rivers!), what’s your favourite train-related song? Over to you.
*and not in a cool way, like the Village People.
**I can only assume that rivers have good legal representation / a strong union in order to have secured equal billing here. The Amalgamated Association of Flowing Water Bodies (TAAFWB)?
*^see what I did there? #Moderndaygenius.
^might be an idea for a post in there KMA dudes?