05 June 2008

The music of Walk The Line

Well you wonder why I always dress in black
Why you never see bright colours on my back
And why does my appearance seem to have a sombre tone
Well there's a reason for the things that I have on
I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down
Livin' in the hopeless hungry side of town
I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime
But is there because he's a victim of the times

- Johnny Cash, ‘Man In Black’ (1971)

In the comedy spoof Walk Hard, a stage manager approaches our pensive singin’ hero Dewey Cox backstage, calling for him to take the stage and perform. Cox’s sidekick fends off the stage manager, declaiming, ‘Give him a minute, son. Dewey Cox needs to think about his entire life before he plays’. Harking back to the opening scenes of Walk The Line, the Johnny Cash biopic, Walk Hard makes a good point: man, that sure is one long flashback in the Folsom Prison scene.

In between the bookends of the Folsom performance director James Mangold (Cop Land, Girl Interrupted, 3:10 To Yuma) fills the viewers in on the Cash life story, and a fine set piece his movie is too. Joaquin Phoenix played a druggie and was nominated for an Oscar but didn’t win. Reese Witherspoon was nominated too: she *didn’t* play a druggie and therefore *did* win an Oscar. For me this just goes to show that if you lead a life of reckless drug abuse and behave like a jerk in the presence of talented and beautiful women, then in the end you get to marry Reese Witherspoon, who if you're very lucky will let you polish the golden statuette once in a while. Score!

Seriously though, this film is a solid piece of work, and it took nearly $120 million at the US box office, making it a strong performer. It also tells the story of one of the last heroes of the age before saturation level was reached in broadcast media.

The thing I liked most about Walk The Line is that it successfully portrayed one of the very few figures in country music who carried off the art of being a country performer without being tarred by the associated deeply uncool hokum, platitudes and cliché generally associated with the genre. Cash was shown as a rebel fighting the musical establishment (note, the pop music establishment, not just the country establishment). His peers were not just the country-as-can-be Carter family, but equally fellow southerners tearing up the 1950s pop charts, like Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley. This placed Cash firmly in the centre of the musical culture of the time. Have a look and enjoy this confident 1959 live performance of Walk The Line:

This depiction of Cash at the centre of it all is probably just reflecting fact and is no great stretch of the imagination, because the American musical climate of the 1950s and 60s seemed to me to be bound together more tightly than today's, due to the relative scarcity of media outlets to expose artists. Sure, there were plenty of short-range radio and TV stations where an act could gather local notoriety – witness the fertile American garage rock boom of the 60s, with acts popping up all over the country to record singles and albums, but few crossed over to attain national and global fame.

Cash was one of the few who made it big, and he stuck around and kept releasing records until the end of his life in 2003. He even achieved a critical rebirth from the 1990s onwards as mainstream music audiences sought out the authenticity and gravitas Cash had always offered. He might not have been trendy or young and pretty, and country radio had largely abandoned him due to his habit of courting musical controversy (after all, look what they did to the Dixie Chicks) but Cash could still write and perform with style.

His collaborations with famed producer Rick Rubin (Beastie Boys, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Tom Petty, and many others) brought a plentiful vein of good form, and saw Cash release numerous albums:

• American Recordings (1994)
• Unchained (1996)
• VH1 Storytellers (1998 live album, with Willie Nelson)
• American III: Solitary Man (2000)
• American IV: The Man Comes Around (2002)
• Unearthed (2003 boxset, released posthumously)
• My Mother's Hymn Book (2004, released posthumously)
• American V: A Hundred Highways (2006, released posthumously)

Many of these recordings featured Cash covering contemporary rock artists, which attracted younger audiences to Cash’s music and broadened his appeal.

Two late-period tracks highlight Cash’s staying power and show why he achieved such a resurgence amongst rock audiences towards the end of his career. On American III he covered U2’s graceful ballad ‘One’ from Achtung Baby (1991), the album that helped drag the Irish ubergroup out of their 80s rock treadmill. Cash’s cracked, expressive voice worked wonders with the lyrics and gave the song a haunting quality that the original arguably lacked. And on American IV his rendition of Sting’s ‘I Hung My Head’ from Mercury Falling (1996) is a sparse, honest affair, with the role of the accidental murderer awaiting the hangman’s noose utterly believable in Cash’s performance.

Another major asset to the film, aside from the excellent performances offered by Phoenix and Witherspoon, who sung all their own material, was the film’s soundtrack, which was guided by the gifted producer and performer, T-Bone Burnett. Burnett generated a set of songs largely taken from the country genre and fired them up with the vigour and pace that would appeal to broader audiences, rather than just country fans. Take a listen to Cash’s early recordings for Sun Records in Memphis, and you’ll hear real country music – there’s twang aplenty. Then listen to Walk The Line’s soundtrack and you’ll hear the beautiful thumping bass that sets the Folsom Prison water glass popping – this is a prime example of melding the best of two musical genres.

Burnett is a low-profile figure, but is well-known in the music industry. I came to know his work through his artful production on six great albums by his then wife Sam Phillips (who is not to be confused with the famous head of Sun Records, who was Mr. Sam Phillips). In the 1990s Burnett moved into film work and achieved great success with the soundtrack to the Coen’s O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), which played a major role in the recent revival of interest in bluegrass music, before he moved on to Walk The Line. He has also collaborated and produced albums for a great many artists, including Roy Orbison, Elvis Costello and the Wallflowers.

His work on the Walk The Line soundtrack achieves similar results to that of the soundtrack album project that accompanied Backbeat (1994), which saw a collection of indie rockers assembled as The Backbeat Band to perform covers of the songs the Beatles would’ve covered in their speed-fuelled early 1960s performances in Hamburg. The Backbeat soundtrack, like that of Walk The Line, captured the essence of the original performances but packaged it in a way to ensure that contemporary audiences could enjoy and relate to the material.

Recently I finally had an opportunity to see T-Bone Burnett perform live on an episode of Later With Jools Holland. He produced Raising Sand (2007) the collaboration between Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, and is touring with them as a guitarist. Burnett lurked on stage right, not wanting to draw attention away from the grizzled Plant and the rare beauty of Krauss, but it was a real treat to see him performing live, even if it was from nearly ten kilometres away in the BBC TV Centre. Now all we have to do is provide Jools Holland with a polite reminder that it’s T-Bone Burnett, not blues stalwart T-Bone Walker, as he mistakenly introduced him after the performance.

T-Bone Burnett

To commemorate Burnett's work as a solo artist, here's a dodgy video transfer of River Of Love from his self-titled 1995 album. Don't be thrown off the scent by the fact that it's TNN, or by the dodgy hairstyles - this is a top song.

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