This is the version of the song that you find most often when you search for “wichita lineman” on my file-sharing service – though it’s worth noting that the KLF’s “Wichita Lineman Was a Song I Once Heard” does come up more often. Glen Campbell is in second place; after that, there’s no clear third place. This is a recent rendition: it’s off of 2003’s Unearthed, the box set of the late albums where they propped him up and made Mr. Cash sing mostly recent songs (“Hurt”, “Personal Jesus”, “I See a Darkness”) for the delight of the youth. That Cash was audibly old & wheezy helped sales along; that he died helped most of all.
This is of course cynical, but this is a rather perfunctory cover. “Wichita Lineman” didn’t make it onto any of the four discs that the box set mined. I don’t know that anyone would make the case that it’s as compelling as a song as the other work Cash was doing at the same time. But it’s Johnny Cash, you say. Of course it’s Johnny Cash, but it’s a song too, and I think it fails for that reason.
First, the instrumentation. This starts out with an acoustic guitar, with notes from a vibraphone strategically highlighting the dramatic parts. A piano comes in for the first chorus and stays around for the rest of the song. After the second chorus, dramatic guitar which doesn’t need to be there – this comes back towards the end as well. I don’t know why they did this &ndash it ruins the desolation that Cash’s voice has going. It’s too big & too country.
He clearly knows the song and sings it like he understands it (he can successfully parse “that stretch down South”, for example). But the quirks of the song (the vaguely wheedling tone of “I know I need a small vacation”) don’t work for him in the same way that he can make the quirks of the other songs he was covering at about this time work. Consider his tone in his cover of Nick Cave’s “The Mercy Seat”, for example, as he lists off the mystic objects in his jail cell – the weirdness there is more powerful than the fire-and-brimstone of the climax of that song. Does Johnny Cash need “a small vacation”? The irony veiled in the line – the speaker clearly wants more than a small vacation – isn’t lost on Cash, but Cash’s voice isn’t quite suited for the trickiness implied. When one is old & gnarled one should be a voice of capital-T Truth. And I don’t know that that’s what happening here.
Cash’s vocal doesn’t work for the song, not because it’s not desolate enough, but because desolation isn’t enough. This is not a song for old men.