The first LP ever released by Sam Phillips’ famous Sun label, the home of rock’n’roll, was not some rootin’-tootin’, butt-shakin’, lip-curlin’ extravaganza by Elvis Presley or some other young punk – it was the debut album of the greatest country singer of them all, Johnny Cash. Possibly the hardest man ever to strum a guitar in anger, Cash went on to a fruitful career, surviving speed addiction, several turns of the wheel of fashion and a reinvention as a harbinger of doom by Rick Rubin in the years before his death – but back in the 1950s, he was young, dumb and full of bass.
Unlikely as it may sound, one of the key features of this ridiculously-titled LP was Marshall Grant’s double bass. While production technology was still in its infancy in those primitive times, listen carefully through the bathtub-level clarity and you’ll pick out Grant’s solid, fluid bass part. Sure, back then bass players were laughed at if they tried to funk it up (that is, if they were playing anything other than Dixieland jazz), so don’t expect Les Claypool or anything, but for its time Grant’s bass-line is a marvel.
The best-known song from this album, and indeed one of the most enduring songs from Cash’s astounding, six-decade catalog, is ‘I Walk The Line’. A little less intimidating than Cash’s later prison-themed work (cue “Shot a man in Reno… just to watch him die”, with the last word intoned in a sub-bass growl), ‘I Walk The Line’ is a touching declaration of the singer’s love for his wife. “I find it very, very easy to be true,” he warbles, while the tinny guitar line and much more solid bass pattern swings along briskly. Sun-watchers will recognize the indistinct mix from later, better-known recordings by Elvis and other greats of the era, in which the rhythm section wasn’t regarded so much as an integral part of the band as just some blokes in suits whose main function was to make the singer look nice.
Marshall Grant’s reputation never really spread beyond the country and rockabilly fanbase, although in later life he was justly hailed as a key musician of the era. He recorded his experiences with Cash in a 2006 autobiography titled I Was There When It Happened: My Life With Johnny Cash. Hats off to him, we say.