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Rhino presents
Johnny Cash: Ridin' the Rails (1974)

"When I was a boy, the train ran by my house and they carried with them a promise that somewhere down the track, anything would be possible."
- Johnny Cash

Review By: Mark Zimmer   
Published: April 19, 2005

Stars: Johnny Cash
Director: Nicholas Webster

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (nothing objectionable)
Run Time: 00h:51m:36s
Release Date: April 19, 2005
UPC: 603497041022
Genre: country

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ B+C-C C-

DVD Review

Anyone who saw Johnny Cash's television series in the 1970s is well aware that he had a long-abiding affection for railroad trains. Every week he'd sing another train song or two, but he got a chance to host this more expansive look at the locomotive and its effect on the development of America, with songs and stories. It still holds up well 30 years later.

In pseudo-documentary style, this program includes elaborate historical re-creations of various events in the history of the railroads, such as Peter Cooper's Tom Thumb and its famous race with a horse, the first passenger train, the Best Friend of Charleston, and the Civil War locomotive chase that formed the basis of Buster Keaton's The General. The 1869 driving of the final spike at Promontory Point Utah, to close the transatlantic railroad, gets special attention, as do the resultant train robbers and the robber barons of the late 19th century. The contributions of the railroads to the expansion of America aren't the only ones, however, but the military functions served during both World Wars also are covered, as well as the shift to diesel and the sad decline of the railroads, already well under way in 1974.

Sprinkled throughout the program are over ten songs, made all the better by Cash's inimitable gravelly voice, peculiarly suited for the rough life of the railroad. The highlights include a marvelous rendition of the classic City of New Orleans by the Man in Black. His enthusiasm is infectious and anyone with the slightest fondness for the railroad will easily get swept up in his passion for the subject. The pseduo-documentary style is emphasized by the use of you-are-there handheld cameras. The re-enactments are pretty well done, with plenty of steam locomotives on hand for visual interest. The work of a team of gandy dancers gets a look that's pretty fascinating as well.

The concluding segment is painfully poignant, especially in hindsight, as Cash tours several decaying train stations and depots, observing trees growing up between railroad ties. The possibilities of Amtrak are raised hopefully, but due to decades of underfunding and inattention the last passenger rail in America is once again on the chopping block today, making this program's release on DVD particularly timely.

Songs include:

Ridin' the Rails
The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down
John Henry
Shave and a Hot Bath
Casey Jones
Wreck of the Old 97
Brother, Can You Spare a Dime
Crystal Chandeliers and Burgundy
Doesn't Anybody Know My Name
City of New Orleans
The L&N Don't Stop Here Any More

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The original full-frame television picture is not in the best of shape. It has a dupey and soft appearance much of the time, and there's quite a lot of grain, though it's pretty well-rendered and not sparkly. Color is acceptable, though black levels are a bit lacking for the most part. Speckling and frame damage are common, and on occasion there are hairs in the gate.

Image Transfer Grade: C-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: Two audio tracks are included: a 2.0 stereo track and a 5.1 track that is mixed differently, though not always better. Both have significant hiss and a somewhat echo-like quality to the narration. The songs generally sound fine. The 2.0 track is much louder than the 5.1, but the narration on occasion gets lost on the 5.1 track. The 2.0 is generally preferable, even if it is too loud.

Audio Transfer Grade: C


Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 13 cues and remote access
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. Outtakes
Extras Review: The only extra is a set of outtakes from the filming totalling nearly fifteen minutes in length. These include several versions of the Civil War sequence (one with a longer rendition of Lorena) and the Promontory Point sequence. There are also silent selections of footage of Cash walking the railroad tracks and more footage of abandoned stations. Chaptering is acceptable though direct access for the songs would have been nice.

Extras Grade: C-


Final Comments

An affectionate look back at American railroads, with plenty of great songs as only the Man in Black can perform them. Highly recommended for fans of either Cash or trains or both.


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