Johnny Cash was an American icon with a music catalog that can stand up against any country musician. In a career that stretched across six decades, Cash had 9 Number 1 hits, 40 Top 10 hits, and 119 songs make the Billboard Top 100. His music continues to influence musicians and shape country music long after his death in 2003. Stories of Cash’s hard life on the road are legendary and so are tales of his later sobriety and family life with wife June Carter Cash. But it’s his music that endures and inspires the most.
Here are 5 of the Man in Black’s best songs.
5. A Boy Named Sue
It’s easy to hear that booming voice and imagine Cash as brooding and mean. But it’s in the songs like A Boy Named Sue where the playful side comes out, and you get the chance to see the charisma that made him such a compelling stage performer.
The song was written by children’s book author Shel Silverstein. It’s about a man who leaves his wife and son, but as a parting gift gives his boy the name Sue. Dad reckons a boy named Sue would have to toughen up quickly as he was sure to be bullied “cause life ain’t easy for a boy named Sue.”
4. Ring of Fire
The opening of Ring of Fire is one of the most iconic of any song. The blaring horns — the idea for which came to Cash in a dream — sonically pave the way for Cash’s entrance as if he were royalty.
The history of the song is a bit of a mess though as it’s not completely clear who actually wrote it. June Carter Cash said she and Merle Kilgore wrote it. She says the song is about falling in love with Johnny, who at that point was married and addicted to drugs and alcohol.
“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.”
Though, Cash’s first wife, Vivian Cash, claims Johnny Cash wrote it while high about a female body part and just gave June credit to help her out.
“The truth is, Johnny wrote that song, while pilled up and drunk, about a certain private female body part,” she wrote.
For his part, Johnny Cash always claimed June wrote it.
Mega-producer Rick Rubin was the first to pitch the idea to Cash about remaking the Nine Inch Nails song. That version is industrial and harsh. Cash didn’t get it. So Rubin sent him the lyrics and asked him to read them without the music. Cash bought in. His take was just as bleak as Trent Reznor’s original, but Cash’s voice fills the song with a sense of longing and heart. It’s haunting and sad but oddly beautiful.
Cash was very ill during the recording and it took much longer than normal to finish, Rubin said. But when it was done, it was a big hit.
The song reintroduced Cash to a younger audience and propelled his last surge of popularity before his death. The song trended on Twitter recently after a user asked what cover song is better than the original. Hurt was one of the top responses. Reznor would probably agree. He told the Alternative Press that when he heard the song along with the music video he realized “that song isn’t mine anymore.”
2. I Walk The Line
Cash wrote I Walk The Line for his first wife. Outwardly, it’s his promise of devotion and fidelity to her. In reality, he wrote the song for himself to remind him to not chase his bad impulses.
“It was kind of a prodding to myself to, `Play it straight, Johnny,’” Cash said of the song, NPR reported.
Ironically, the success of “I Walk The Line” may have contributed to him straying from it. The song shot to No. 1 on the country charts and reached the Top 20 of the pop charts. This newfound fame complicated things, Cash said.
“I Walk The Line was a reminder to stay true, which it turned out was not very, very easy to do,” Cash wrote, according to SongFacts.com. Though he eventually met Carter and found religion, and never strayed.
1. Folsom Prison Blues
Folsom Prison Blues was one of the first songs Cash recorded for Sun Records in the 1950s. It was a hit, but it wasn’t the iconic song that it would become. Folsom Prison Blues became the Johnny Cash song with his live recording at Folsom Prison in 1968.
The raucous prison crowd gives the song an edge it lacked in the original recording. Cash’s sonorous voice is fantastic live and those classic lyrics helped make this recording special. And it created the myth of Johnny Cash. Cash never spent a night in jail, but he is one of those prisoners that in that recording. He is a man among his people. And he clearly felt it as well. Prison reform was one of the issues he cared for deeply. And he fought for the rights of inmates for the rest of his life.
The idea for the song came to him when he was stationed in West Germany, he told Rolling Stone. He was watching the film Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison. He imagined himself behind those bars, biding his time, and dreaming of a way out. But he needed a good reason to find himself in that jail. What was the worst reason to kill someone, he asked himself.
“I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die” was the answer that came to his mind rather quickly. But it hasn’t left ours since.