John R. Cash is an American performer who needs little introduction, even though it's been almost a decade since his passing in 2003. He's legendary enough that his last two posthumous albums of new material both hit the Top Ten of the Billboard pop albums chart, his first appearance that high on the list since 1970. If one includes the countless compilations of his work since his first LP for Sun Records in 1957, there's literally hundreds of albums to wade through.
For the uninitiated, figuring out where to start in his discography can be a daunting proposition. Even those with a pretty good working knowledge of Cash's various career tangents over the decades -- or, anybody who hasn't been listening extremely closely since the mid-1950s -- are likely to still uncover some surprises.
A few decades into the CD era, nearly all of Cash's original studio albums have been reissued as stand-alone discs in their original form at one time or another. One that doesn't appear to have been reissued (outside a German Bear Family box set) is The Rambler, the last of his country concept albums.
Released in 1977, the album might take some listeners by surprise because it's a mix of music, narration and dialogue. The basic storyline: The Rambler/narrator's relationship breaks up and he goes on the road, picking up a traveling companion in the same situation and some occasional trouble along the way. Essentially, the "story" is unresolved; Cash's last line is "But you know what? I just wonder how long a man has to look before he finds himself," at which point the radio clicks on -- to the Cash song which started the album!
The Rambler is notable in his catalog for being entirely composed by Cash, an uncommon occurrence. The songs mostly hark back to the stripped-down sound of the Sun era, which is not always the case for Cash's '70s output. And it's also somewhat of a family affair, with speaking parts taken by Cash's daughter Rosanne, step-daughter Carlene, and Carlene's then-husband Jack Routh. The storyline itself is drawn from life as well -- according to Cash's liner notes: "There's a lot of it you really wouldn't believe, but at least this a particular part of it you've never heard."
While The Rambler wouldn't be the place I'd recommend a newcomer to Cash's music should start, longtime fans who run across the LP should definitely give it a try, as it's intriguing hearing Cash try his hand at an audio drama. The album did hit the Billboard Country Top 40 album chart, so there should be some out there for the seeking! (Columbia KC 34833, 1977)