Johnny Cash’s ‘A Boy Named Sue’: Surprising Story Behind the Classic Country Song

by Matthew Wilson

Don’t call Johnny Cash by the name of Sue. The country singer’s seminal classic “A Boy Named Sue” was a smash hit when it released in 1969.

The tune is a ballad of a man with the strangest of names. His father named him Sue, which is commonly a girl’s name. The boy grows into a man with a chip on his shoulder. He constantly gets into fights with others because they make fun of his name. Finally, Sue hunts down his father and prepares to get his revenge. But the father revealed he named him Sue in order to toughen him up in life.

Cash’s deep baritones weave together this tale in a way that only the Man in Black can. But the first time Cash performed the song, he was actually standing before a crowd of convicts. Cash performed at San Quentin Prison when he whipped out the tune for the showcase.

Cash had actually heard the song a week before. During a gathering of artists, singers like Bob Dylan and Kris Kristofferson revealed songs they had been working on. That’s when songwriter Shel Silverstein introduced the audience to the tale of a boy named Sue.

Cash loved the idea of the song and asked to play it. But he didn’t have time to rehearse the tune before his performance. Cash performed the entire song by reading the lyrics from a piece of paper in front of the audience. Talk about improvising. But Cash’s risk paid off and it was a hit in the jail and also worldwide.

The Real Story Behind Johnny Cash’s Hit

But Shel Silverstein’s was actually inspired by real-life, believe it or not. Sometimes ideas come from the least likely of places. There was actually a man named Sue that Silverstein discovered. Sue K. Hicks was a judge in Tennessee and gave a speech at an event. Silverstein had been in the audience and latched onto the idea for a song.

But unlike the song, there were no lessons of bravado or being a man in real life. Sue’s father gave him his name instead, in love and remembrance. Sue had been named after his mother, Susanna Hicks. Susanna died in childbirth while delivering Sue.

His father gave him the name to keep her memory alive.