"I Walk The Line" / Johnny Cash
Last night at Yankee Stadium, one of the trivia quizzes between innings involved the Yankees voting on their favorite Johnny Cash song. This song won hands-down, of course. Well, maybe the New York Yankees aren't the most reliable music experts in the world, but since "The Beast In Me" wasn't an option, I'd have gone for "I Walk The Line" too; it's a riveting track, full of piss and vinegar, and I've always loved it.
I grew up with a deep-dyed prejudice against country music, but somehow I never included Johnny Cash in there. The country label never fit him, anyway; he sat right at the crossroads between country and rock, blazing his own trail. In a blind taste test, if you played Cash's "Cry, Cry, Cry," "Roy Orbison's "Only the Lonely", Ray Charles' "Crying Time", and Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel" together, I bet you wouldn't be able to tell which were country and which were rock and which were R&B -- but you'd sure enjoy it all.
Cash's persona was always that of a caged tiger, and this song snarls proudly from behind those frail and fragile bars. The tempo is just a little faster and more breathless than you remember it, as if hanging on for dear life; that bass line is brisk and relentless, the drum brushes chuffing along to keep up. "I keep a close watch on this heart of mine," Cash informs us in his gravelly baritone, "I keep my eyes wide open all the time / I keep the ends out for the tie that binds." There's too much crackling energy to his voice for him to be the sort of uptight dude who'd act this way, but we soon find out why he's being so good: "Because you're mine / I walk the line." And the way his voice lands with a grateful shiver on the deep note of "mine" -- well, that's love for you.
Being good for the sake of a woman means a whole lot more coming from a confirmed hellraiser; that's the measure of his commitment. Fidelity? Piece of cake -- "I find it very very easy to be true / I find myself alone when each day is through." Constant attention? "I keep you on my mind both day and night." And he doesn't even try to take the credit for it: "You've got a way to keep me on your side / You give me cause for love that I can't hide." This has to be one of the most well-adjusted love songs in the history of pop music.
It's Cash's delivery that gives it all the tension, of course; that trademark growl, the occasional gruff quiver in his voice. Despite the lyrics, I get the feeling that walking that line is a daily battle for this guy. And yet he does it, without a word of regret or blame or demand -- nothing but strength and courage and unequivocal passion, coming at us so intently, I need to draw a VERY DEEP BREATH when this song has hurtled to its close.
This is how a man in love ought to act, dammit. Whew! I better go sit on the porch now and cool off.
I Walk The Line sample