Top 20 Best-Selling Country Artists of All Time: No. 19 Johnny Cash

by Jim Casey

Johnny Cash was a mover and a shaker for more than 50 years. Moving records off the shelves isn’t the be-all and end-all of what makes an artist successful. But it sure does help.

For almost 70 years, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has been certifying domestic album sales with their glistening designations: Gold (500,000 units), Platinum (1 million units), Multi-Platinum (2 million units and more), and Diamond (10 million units and more).

We’re breaking down the Top 20 Best-Selling Country Artists of All Time in 20 installments, according to the RIAA. Sure, there’s going to be a bit of cross-genre appeal when we talk about some of these movers and shakers, but they’ve all got country roots—or branches. So don’t be giving us any flak about John Denver, newjack.

No. 19: Johnny Cash

  • 23.5 Million Units Sold
  • 6 Multi-Platinum Albums
  • 4 Platinum Albums
  • 9 Gold Albums
  • 3 Gold Singles

The Man in Black could become the Man in Platinum with a 21st-century rebranding. Johnny sold 23.5 million units in the U.S. during his decades on the chart.

Johnny’s Best-Selling Albums

Owning The Essential Johnny Cash should be a prerequisite for every country music fan. After all, it’s essential. The 36-song collection was released in 2002 via Legacy/Columbia in honor of Johnny’s 70th birthday. The double-album features more Cash than an ATM, including: “Hey Porter,” “Get Rhythm,” “Ring of Fire,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Jackson,” “A Boy Named Sue,” “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky,” and more.

The Essential Johnny Cash was certified 3X Platinum by the RIAA in 2016 for sales of 3 million units. Interestingly enough, Johnny has two additional albums certified as 3X Platinum—both live recordings: 1968’s Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison and 1969’s Johnny Cash at San Quentin. Johnny’s best-selling studio album is 2002’s American IV: The Man Comes Around (Platinum).

Cash-Cow Singles

“Ring of Fire,” “A Boy Named Sue,” and “Hurt” are Johnny’s best-selling singles. The RIAA has certified each as Gold for sales of 500,000 units.

“Penned by June Carter and Merle Kilgore, “Ring of Fire” was originally recorded by June’s sister, Anita Carter. Johnny put his pipes on it in 1963. He took the tune to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Country Singles chart for seven weeks. In 2014, Rolling Stone ranked the song No. 27 on its list of the 100 Greatest Country Songs of All Time.

Of course, the great Shel Silverstein penned “A Boy Named Sue.” Johnny scored a No. 1 hit with the clever tale in 1969.

“Hurt” was originally recorded by Nine Inch Nails in 1994. Written by NIN’s Trent Reznor, Johnny’s 2002 recording of “Hurt” won the 2003 CMA Award for Single of the Year and the 2003 Grammy Award for Best Short Form Music Video.

In Defense of Johnny Cash

In 1981, an ostrich that lived on Johnny’s property kicked him and left him seriously injured. No lie. Waldo the ostrich’s broke five of Cash’s ribs and left him with internal bleeding.

In his 1997 book, Cash: The Autobiography, Johnny notes that had it not been for his “solid” belt buckle, the ostrich would have eviscerated him from the kick of its giant claw. In Johnny’s defense, an ostrich ain’t no joke. We like to imagine Waldo ended up as a burger.