Johnny Cash had a thing about trains. He wrote songs about trains, he used trains as metaphors, and he even made a documentary about trains. Therefore the theme of this week’s concept album comes as little surprise. Ride This Train is an exploration of the ‘heart and muscle’ of the USA, told from the perspective of various travellers on the railways. As the train travels from state to state, we meet fellow passengers from different walks of life and different centuries, each with a tale to tell.
Cash introduces every track with a short tale setting the scene and accompanied by plenty of train sound effects. Unfortunately, the narrative style used in these segments is not really to my taste. I can tell Cash’s Grandpa-esque reminiscing about ‘ole Miss Jones’ fine pies and the sweetest music he ever heard is supposed to fill your heart with wonder over the good old days when ‘the land was so fresh you’d think the Lord just created it yesterday’, but it has a tendency to make me yawn.
The songs themselves are alright. The faster songs have a pleasantly bouncy rhythm, and there is some enjoyable guitar playing on the record. My favourite track on the album is Going to Memphis, with its atmospheric chain effects and soulful backing vocals it has a great Gospel feel. The slower tracks definitely drag though, and I’m not sure you can really call Old Doc Brown a song: the narration never seems to give way to a tune.
I admire this album for what it is trying to do. The concept is an interesting one, and I enjoyed learning a little about the coal loaders and lumberjacks that forged America. However Cash’s artisitic liscence has a tendency to run away with him on this record; for example, painting mass-murderer John Wesley Hardin as a misunderstood soul in the painfully plodding Slow Rider is a considerable stretch of credibility!