Friday, February 1, 2013

Johnny Cash -- "I Walk the Line" (1956)

I find it very, very easy to be true 
I find myself alone when each day is through 

I'm really, really, really excited about this February's 29 Songs in 28 Days.™  Not quite excited enough to need to put on an adult diaper, but close.

For those of you who are new to 2 or 3 lines, here's a little background info.  Eleven months of the years, you can expect three posts a week from 2 or 3 lines.  But in February, you get a new post every single day -- and a bonus post featuring the star of the SuperBowl halftime act.  Do the math, and you'll see that makes 29 posts in 28 days.

This year's 29 Songs in 28 Days™ will highlight music associated with the seven cities that I believe have had the most significance for American popular music.  Each of the seven days of the week will be paired with one of those seven cities  -- for example, each Friday will feature a Memphis song.

An aerial view of Memphis in 2005
The songs will not necessarily be presented in chronological order, but the first week's songs are all from the late 1950s and early or mid-1960s -- the classic era of American pop music and (not coincidentally) the years when I became conscious of that music.

Let's get started.

Johnny Cash was born in a small town in Arkansas in 1932.  Life wasn't easy for his family during the depression.  Their cotton farm flooded twice, inspiring him to write the song "Five Feet High and Rising" years later.  His 15-year-old brother Jack died after he was almost cut in half in a sawmill accident.

Cash joined the Air Force when he was 18, and met 17-year-old Vivian Liberto at a roller-skating rink in San Antonio, where he was stationed.  After a three-year tour of duty in Germany, Cash married Vivian in 1954.

The Sun Records studios and offices in Memphis
The newlyweds settled in Memphis, where Cash sold appliances by day and played in a band at night.  He went to Sun Records -- the legendary studio that gave Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, and Jerry Lee Lewis their start -- and auditioned for Sun's founder, Sam Phillips, who eventually signed him.

"I Walk the Line" was recorded in 1956, and became Cash's first #1 hit (on the Billboard country music chart).   It's a unique song musically.  Every verse is accompanied by a change of key, and you hear Cash humming to himself to locate his pitch before beginning to sing each new verse.  

Cash wrote "I Walk the Line" for Vivian one night while he was on tour in Gladewater, Texas.  "I suppose I was laying out my pledge of devotion," he said later.

Cash with his first wife, Vivian
When my grandmother did something bad in front of me, she would tell me to "do as I say, not as I do."  Cash didn't do as he said in this song -- he had a number of affairs while touring.  The Cashes divorced in 1966, and Johnny married country singer June Carter in 1968 (13 years after they had met backstage at the Grand Ole Opry).  

"I Walk the Line" is one of the first songs I remember hearing as a child.  Elvis Presley's "Hound Dog" and Carl Perkins's "Blue Suede Shoes" -- also #1 hits released in 1956 -- were a couple of the others.  (Cash was a favorite of mine because he had a low voice, as did I -- so I could comfortably sing along with his records.)

That year, Cash, Presley, Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis all happened to be in the Sun studios one day later that year, and started fooling around.  The recording engineer let the tape roll, and boys jammed on everything from "Don't Be Cruel" to "White Christmas" -- although mostly they sang gospel songs.

The "Million Dollar Quartet":
Lewis, Perkins, Presley, Cash
Sam Phillips called the Memphis newspaper, which sent over a reporter who wrote a story the next day about the "Million Dollar Quartet."  The recordings were released many years later, and a musical called "Million Dollar Quartet" opened on Broadway in 2010 and ran for over a year.

Years later, Cash was a member of another "Million Dollar Quartet" when he recorded and toured with Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson.

Cash's moribund career was revived in the 1990s when he signed on with producer Rick Rubin, who was best known as a producer of rap and metal albums.  His final albums were recorded after he had been diagnosed as having a neurodegenerative disease and his lungs were damaged by pneumonia.

Cash shortly before his death in 2003
I've written before about the music video for his recording of the song "Hurt" (originally recorded by the Nine Inch Nails), and I will mention it every time I mention Cash.  Cash had a dominating physical presence, and was one of the most charismatic performers you will ever see.  The video pulls no punches -- it is heartbreaking to see what age and his illnesses reduced him to at the end of his life.

I can't think of a performer who excelled in so many popular music genres as Cash.  He is a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the Gospel Music Hall of Fame.  (The first Rick Rubin-produced album Cash did won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album.)  

Here's Johnny Cash singing "I Walk the Line":

Click here to buy the song from Amazon:

1 comment:

  1. I first encountered the music of Johnny Cash in 1958, when I was an engineering student at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. About half the students in my dorm were Agriculture majors (we Engineering majors had a more colorful name for them, a term sometimes applied to C&W music). I could walk down the corridor, and if the country music station was playing "I Walk the Line", I could go from one end to the other and not miss a beat. About ten years later, Mr. Cash had a TV show, which I liked because of the music and the stock footage of trains that the show included. One show that I missed had Evie Sands singing "How Do You Feel" and getting applause for her guitar work--from time to time this shows up on YouTube.