The Man in Black just celebrated his 70th birthday (February 26), and rather than inviting everybody over to his house for cake, Cash's long-time record company is taking the opportunity to do a year-long series of reissues. Mid-March brings five albums that have never been on CD in America, including this one, with bonus tracks and restored sound and packaging.
By Orange Blossom, Cash had moved away from the primal fire of his early Sun recordings, digging into obsessions with rural life and American lore. The "clickity clack, clickity clack" of the title tune announces the first of two train tunes here (one is a bonus track); he praises the raging Colorado River and springtime in Alaska; he takes on age-old tales like "Long Black Veil" and "Danny Boy." On the latter, the storyteller provides a long, superficially unrelated, spoken-word intro recalling his father's country courtship of Cash's mama.
He also takes up the cause of the dispossessed, most potently in the Harlan Howard-penned "The Wall," a beautifully poignant take on prison life that, maybe more than any other song here, screams "Johnny Cash." And he sings no fewer than three songs by that troubadour whose importance by 1965 was undeniable: Bob Dylan. He does so with mixed results - Cash's deadpan vocal on "It Ain't Me Babe" sounds like the work of a man who doesn't know what to make of the song, but "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright" feels natural flowing from his mouth, with emotional inflection that's dead-on.
That inflection also suits "Long Black Veil" rather famously. You can hear the "cold, dark night" as Cash sings about it, and few listeners will have a problem believing the spectral singer is telling this tale of woe from beyond the grave.
LPs from this period aren't the best introduction for Cash novices. With honest motives, the man goes out on some stylistic limbs that can't bear his weight, and the results are sometimes corny and dated. Those who know him only glancingly should pick up Legacy's new two-disc Essential Johnny Cash (or, if you can still find it, its three-disc predecessor of the same name, which has a better selection for a very reasonable price). For those of us, though, who've played those hits collections into the ground, a reissue series like this is an indispensible way to get a better handle on one of the great personalities of American music.