Turn Off Shuffle:
Concept Albums Explained

by Paul-Newell Reaves

The Rambler
Johnny Cash

A lesser known Cash album, “The Rambler” isn’t full of hits, that’s a-sure.  “Wednesday Car” is as close as this album comes to making it on a Best Of collection.  But the scope of this mediocre album is apparent on the cover, where it reads “Directed by Johnny Cash”.  Directed by is not music speak: it’s usually produced by, engineered by, mixed and mastered by– those are the roles that usually appear on album credits.  With the two words directed by, Cash tells us we are in for a cinematic experience.

Turning to the back cover, we are introduced to three characters, “the Rambler”– Johnny Cash– “the Fisherman”, and “the Cowgirl”.  As we move on along through the album, we’ll examine the distinctions between the Fisherman stock character, who is hoping to catch something in the everflowing river, the Cowgirl stock character, just along for the ride, and the Rambler stock character, headed on down the everflowing highway, only looking to go.

The tracklist, meanwhile, intersperses each song with “Dialogues”.  Though most of the songs do not directly relate to the road trip concept of the album– and some seem pretty darn disjointed from it, lyrically– these dialogues unite all the songs coherently.  The Dialogues will become our main focus of interest.

The album begins with the sounds of boots walking, a car door opening then slamming shut, an ignition turning over, and a car peeling out onto the roadway.  The guitar plunks in, and then Cash starts singing, “I woke up this afternoon and looked into your eyes, and something was as wrong as if the Sun forgot to rise”.  Here we have a reason for the Rambler’s rambling– an intimate relationship done gone wrong.

With the lyric “County Road 640, State Highway 45, life out off the interstate is very much alive”, we’re given a firm setting in place and time.  A county road could be anywhere, but in ’77 there was a State Highway 45 in both Florida and New Jersey.  Then, we have off the interstate— telling us we’re located in the US-of-A, and post-Eisenhower administration– which is when the Interstate Highway System was first introduced.  But the Rambler is not taking those colorless freeways– he’s off the beaten track, away from the massive interstates– he’s riding on County Roads and small State Highways– where life is alive.

By the end of the first song, the rambling has begun to take its effect: “today I’m gonna miss you less. If I miss you at all you’ll never know”.

“Dialogue #1” confirms that this is a love-lost journey.  “There comes a time in every life when love goes wrong, and sometimes all a man or woman can do is go.  It doesn’t matter where, or how far.  What matters is that you’re going”.  At first, “his only companion is a car radio”.  But the Rambler won’t be lone for long.  “He hopes to dull the pain with new experiences, new places, maybe a new face, a new adventure… Near Lafayette, Indiana, the Rambler pulls… into a little roadside park overlooking the river…  discovers he’s not alone.”  We are introduced to the Fisherman character, who isn’t catching much. He’s just enjoying a peaceful spot on the Wabash River.

As the Fisherman tells us of his past, the rambler has found a companion for the aimless drive.  “Rambler: You know, it looks like me and you got something in common.  Fisherman: What you talking about?  Rambler:  Women.  We’re both lost, I think.  You got the river, but I got the highway, and I bet you the highway take you further.  If you wanna run, I got an empty shotgun seat.  Fisherman: I don’t know about that, man.”

Song two, “the Wabash River”, brings us into Mark Twain territory, where the unending flow of the river makes life worth living.  “I’d be drinking… and dead somewhere… drowning memories of her and crying… life ain’t worth it, just as far as I can see, if it wasn’t for the Wabash River”.  The unending flow– be it the flow of time, or of memory, or of life, itself– keeps our character out of trouble.  At least for now.

“Dialogue #2” develops our characters’ love interests, what the Fisherman is hoping to catch– or catch again.  “Fisherman: she was wild.  Even when she was lovin’ me, I knew that tomorrow it’d likely be someone else she’d be with… She really was poison, but I guess it was good poison… the Rambler: my woman’s a lady… what I mean is a good woman, a kind, sweet, considerate, understanding woman who likes to be treated like she treats you… The better she gets love the more she wants to give”.  Then comes the thoroughly forgettable song “Lady”.  The song lyrics have little to do with our story, but it is united to the concept by the Dialogue.

Our characters make it to Denver and find their way to a bar, where they stay for, like, four hours.  The Rambler stumbles off from the bar stool, and gets real, real low.  “Too much beer.  I must be seeing things.  I saw you sitting on a barstool, Lady, then I looked up and you were gone”.  A window slams open.  “Maybe she’s out there somewhere.  Hey Lady!”  Seeing things and shouting out to the street, the Rambler is not having a good night.  “Maybe I did see her, down there having a ball.  Somewhere coming up to me.  Yeah, maybe she’ll be coming”.  The next song, “After the Ball”, develops this notion, a notion of staying up waiting for someone to come home from the party.  “I’m in your bed and listenin’ for your footsteps down the hall… The blinds are drawn, and I have turned the clock face to the wall.  I’ll be waiting for you… after the ball is over”.  The person waiting was not invited to this ball, but is loyal enough– or desperate enough– to wait.

The next day, in the next dialogue– hungover and back on the road– our characters turn on the radio.  It’s Sunday, and religious programming is on the airwaves.  A theological discussion ensues.  “Rambler: Some people need preachers, or somebody to tell ‘em right from wrong, you know.  Fisherman: Not me.  Rambler: I don’t either I guess… My grandfather was a preacher, a country preacher from Carolina… He worked in the fields through the week to support himself, side-by-side with the people he preached to on Sunday.  I guess they believed him on Sunday, because they knew they could believe in him on Monday.”

His companion doesn’t buy it. “Fisherman: They talk holy, holy all the time, and everyone of ‘em has got some trash in their closet.  There ain’t no man that’s all good.  Rambler: No man’s all bad, either.”  This type of social commentary is what real Country music is, what it used to be, what it should be, and what it easily could be again– if any singer had the bravery to do it.

The following song takes the religious discussion in a truly interesting direction.  The title, “No Earthly Good”, directly quotes Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., who said, “some people are so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good.”  Holmes was a member of the Fireside Poets group of late 19th century New England, a group also including William Cunnings Bryant (Thanatopsis), and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (Paul Revere’s Ride).  For Holmes– a prominent lawyer of the time– the line is no compliment.  Too much focus on religion and spirituality, for Holmes, takes away from any success or productivity, here on Earth.  Yet, Cash takes the exact same line– quoted word-for-word, save for changing the object of address with the contraction you’re– takes it as a positive attribute.  It seems like a contradiction from the earlier dialogue about his grandfather, who toils the earthly fields in order to earn the respect of his spiritual parish.  But Cash’s interpretation of the quote makes sense when he develops it. As the song continues, Cash turns the simplest kindnesses into heavenly minded.

Make no mistake, Cash is preaching, here.  Before the third beat of the song, he starts singing “come hear me good brothers, come heed, one and all”.  It is in the second verse where he states his powerful homily.  Addressing “good sisters”, he sings, “you could give someone a cool drink if you would.  You’re so heavenly minded, you’re no earthly good”  An act as simple as providing a drink of water to a thirsty laborer qualifies as heavenly minded.  It seems to be of immense earthly good, such an act– so Cash’s point becomes a reversal of the phrase: you are of so much earthly good that you’re heavenly minded.  That is how you preach!

We’re up to Dialogue #5, we’re coming up on Phoenix, Arizona, and we’re picking up a hitchhiker– who turns out to be a Cowgirl.  She’s just along for the ride.  Distinct from the Rambler stock character, who is just going, the Cowgirl stock character is “just trying to get away”.  This will turn into a revealing difference.  

Cowgirl’s a ton of fun, though.  She’s “a pinball freak”, and she cheats at the game by angling the whole machine upwards, propping its feet up on her cowboy boots.  And the next song is the big hit, “Wednesday Car”– also a ton of fun.

By the next dialogue, we find out what the Cowgirl is just getting away from.  “Cowgirl: I killed my old man.  Rambler: Uh– let me see, now, the bus station oughta be straight ahead.”  The following song, once again, would not otherwise relate to the roadtrip concept– except for the dialogue.  “My Cowboy’s Last Ride” is country music in the rich storytelling tradition– a murderess’ dirge to her cheatin’ man.

Good ol’ Cowgirl’s gone by the 15th second of the next dialogue: “Cowgirl: please don’t turn me in.  Rambler: I never saw ya”. Then this same dialogue gives the rambling a 180 degree turn.  “Fisherman: I’m not sure she’s in California, for sure, man.  She may be in Louisiana, by now… Let’s pull over here a minute… Rambler: why, what’s the matter?  Fisherman: well, I’m just not really sure if I really want to go back to California.  Rambler: hey, listen, I don’t care, Fisherman.  I told you in Indiana that I’m just ramblin’, one place is good as another with me.  Fisherman: you wouldn’t mind then, if, uh, we sorta, turned around and headed towards New Orleans?” Nearly at their destination, they turn around, so the rambling can go on.

By the end of the album, we have an answer for what makes rambling so appealing.  “You never know what’s around the next bend”.  It is the unexpected that provides relief for the Rambler.  The first song swells back in, and the album and the journey begin all over again.

more Concept Albums Explained
ready for the real thing? T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” Explained

more from Defenestrationism.net

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