HomeEntertainmentMusicJohnny Cash’s Hit Song ‘Ring of Fire’: Story Behind the Iconic Tune

Johnny Cash’s Hit Song ‘Ring of Fire’: Story Behind the Iconic Tune

by Josh Lanier
(Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Images)

The meaning behind Johnny Cash’sRing of Fire” depends on who is doing the telling. The country classic is either a song about a difficult love, or it’s an ode to a part of the female anatomy.

What we do know is that Johnny Cash recorded the song with its mariachi inspired trumpets in 1963. It topped the country charts for seven weeks and has been one of the Man in Black most recognizable tunes ever since.

But what is it about?

June Carter Cash falls in love with a difficult man

The first version of the “Ring of Fire” story belongs to the Carter-Cash family, Wide Open Country says. The site claims June Carter wrote the song with songwriter and guitarist Merle Kilgore. They took inspiration from a line in a book of Elizabethan poetry, the site says.

Carter was falling in love with Cash, who at the time was a married alcoholic and drug addict, the L.A. Times said. She thought a line in a poetry book owned by her uncle A.P. summed up their budding love story.

“When I first fell in love with Johnny Cash, it was a scary thing,” June Carter Cash once said. “I never knew what he was going to do. I didn’t know him too well and he was just kind of a wild man — a big kind of a wild man. But God was truly good and [Cash] is a great husband. He’s a great daddy to the children … He’s just a nice man and I wanted you to know that.”

She later wrote of the song: “There is no way to be in that kind of hell, no way to extinguish a flame that burns, burns, burns.”

The song was first recorded by June Carter Cash’s sister, Anita. Her version, “(Love’s) Ring of Fire” was a critical success, Wide Open Country says. But it wasn’t the smash hit it would later become. That changed after Johnny Cash had a dream about the song, Wide Open Country said. In his dream, he heard the opening mariachi horns announce the song’s presence.

He recorded it that way, and it became his biggest hit, MentalFloss said.

Another version of events surrounding ‘Ring of Fire’

Johnny Cash’s first wife has a completely different version of events surrounding the writing of “Ring of Fire.” Vivian Cash wrote about it in her autobiography “I Walked the Line: My Life with Johnny.” And it’s must less romantic than the other version.

“The truth is, Johnny wrote that song, while pilled up and drunk, about a certain private female body part,” she wrote.

Vivian claims Johnny wrote the song with Kilgore but gave June credit because “she needs the money” and he felt sorry for her.

“To this day, it confounds me to hear the elaborate details June told of writing that song for Johnny,” Vivian wrote. “She didn’t write that song anymore than I did.”

Though, if Vivian Cash is to be believed, it’s unclear why Anita Carter would have recorded the song first if Johnny had written it to begin with.

The actual origins of the song will likely never be completely ironed out. But, nearly 60 years later, it still resonates with fans.