Classic Rock

Top 40 Johnny Cash Songs

todayMarch 13, 2024 2

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In chronological order, we present a selection of Johnny Cash songs you simply must hear.
By Ian Wade

Johnny Cash’s lengthy career spanned from the years 1954 to 2003 and saw the release of 96 albums and 153 singles on several record labels. There were songs about the plights of the blue-collar workingman, the downtrodden, the abused, the scoundrels and the unlucky. There are songs about his faith, and how he related to God and how he related to his country; songs that were practically social commentary and songs about love and understanding.

He was perhaps more of a chameleon than people credit him as. In awe of his fellow Sun star Elvis, Cash was hip to fellow storytellers such as Bob Dylan, Tim Hardin and Bruce Springsteen. He would sing the songs of Bob Marley, Sheryl Crow and the Rolling Stones, and offered new gravitas to the likes of Soundgarden, Beck, Depeche Mode and Nine Inch Nails.

LASTING LEGACY

It’s a solid, on-brand discography, with a template of bluegrass, rock and roll, folk and country very much the constant. There are no diversions into disco or rap (although you could probably compile a Top 40 of the tunes that have sampled Cash’s music featuring tracks by the Beastie Boys and De La Soul); it’s the core group of the Tennessee Two, then three, that provided backing for nearly 25 years, then expanded to The Great Eighties Eight after Marshall Grant left in 1980.

So we’ve stuck to singles only, as album tracks get covered in more detail elsewhere in the magazine, but we should mention The Wanderer, a track he recorded with U2 for their 1993 Zooropa album that helped bring him a new audience, and the set of albums recorded with Rick Rubin.

TIMELESS TRACKS

Trying to knock 153 singles into a Top 40 was nigh impossible – the biggest hits naturally feature, as do any that were a turning point or even career revitaliser. Not every collaboration could be included, but you couldn’t have a Johnny Cash Top 40 without a mention for his duets with June Carter Cash or his outlaw country supergroup Highwaymen.

So, join us on this journey through 40 songs that will hopefully do justice to such a vast catalogue of music spread over half a century… a haul of timeless songs that resonate with people now more than ever.

CRY! CRY! CRY!

LABEL Sun Records
RECORDED 1955
Released as the B-side to Hey Porter, Cry Cry Cry became Cash’s first hit single, reaching #14 in the US in 1955. One of the first recordings he made with Luther Perkins and Marshall Grant for Sam Phillips after he returned from the Air Force, it was written overnight by Cash when Phillips said he wanted something he could sell. And sell it did, notching up over 100,000 sales in the southern states. Cash was then invited to open for some other Sun signing called Elvis Presley, and the two became friends. “Every show I did with him, I never missed the chance to stand in the wings and watch,” said Cash. “We all did. He was that charismatic.”

SO DOGGONE LONESOME

LABEL Sun Records
RECORDED 1955
Cash and The Tennessee Two recorded this song in a studio session at Sun Records studios during July 30, 1955, when the trio also recorded Luther Played The Boogie and Mean Eyed Cat. A big fan of honkytonk singer Ernest Tubb, Cash wrote the song with him in mind. Tubb is believed to have heard So Doggone Lonesome on the radio and was inspired to record his own version and performed it at the Grand Ole Opry. Cash felt that he’d finally ‘made it’ now that Tubb had recorded one of his songs, and would repay the favour when he covered Tubb’s I Will Miss You When You Go on his 1960 collection, Now There Was A Song.

I WALK THE LINE

LABEL Sun Records
RECORDED 1956

Where it all got going. I Walk The Line, recorded on April 2, 1956, was released on May 1 and became his first #1, spending six weeks of the summer there. Cash had written it as a ‘pledge of devotion’ to his first wife backstage one night in Gladewater, Texas. Originally meant as a much slower number, Cash sped it up into its freight train style shuffle at the suggestion of Sam Phillips, and grew to prefer the new, faster version as it gained success. The humming sound that you hear Cash make is him adjusting to the various key changes in the song, and the chord progression was inspired by the backwards playback of guitar on his tape recorder.

GET RHYTHM

LABEL Sun Records
RECORDED 1956

Originally recorded in 1956 and released as the B-side to I Walk The Line, Get Rhythm was reissued in 1969 with additional crowd noise dubbed over the Sam Phillips-produced original to suggest it was a live recording – possibly to fit in with the success of Cash’s two prison-based live albums – and reached #1 on the country chart as a bonus. Written with Elvis Presley in mind, Get Rhythm focuses on the plight of a shoeshine boy who he encourages to get rhythm to overcome his mundane occupation… fine career advice coming from The Man In Black, with his catalogue of songs about guns and shooting people.

HOME OF THE BLUES

LABEL Sun Records
RECORDED 1957

Like most country troubadours, Johnny Cash had a rough upbringing – a subject he’d return to over the years with the likes of Five Feet High And Rising and Look At Them Beans. Growing up alongside his six siblings in a poor 20-acre farming community in Arkansas, he was encouraged into music by his devout Pentecostal mother, herself a fine singer of hymns and folk songs, although his music teacher said he needn’t continue with singing lessons as his own voice was distinctive enough. He co-authored this number with Lillie McAlpin and Glenn Douglas Tubb and recorded it alongside the B-side Give My Love To Rose in July 1957 with Perkins and Grant. It made #3 when it was released that August.

BALLAD OF A TEENAGE QUEEN

LABEL Sun Records
RECORDED 1958

For Cash’s second album Sings The Songs That Made Him Famous from 1958, he covered, fittingly, the songs that made him famous. This was one of the many songs that Sun legend Jack Clement wrote or produced for Cash; he’d go on to produce Ring Of Fire and work at RCA in Nashville. Cash’s version of this number about a girl swept off her feet by Hollywood, but realising she was happier poor and back home with a sweetheart, was his third country chart #1. He would return to it in 1988 and record a version featuring his daughter Rosanne and The Everly Brothers; it was only one of a handful of recordings he released with Rosanne.

GUESS THINGS HAPPEN THAT WAY

LABEL Sun Records
RECORDED 1958

This brief 110-second long affair about a man struggling with everything after his true love has fled, but thinking that it’s all down to God’s great plan, became Cash’s fourth No.1 in 1958, spending eight weeks at the top. Again recorded at Sun – his last for the label – with the Tennessee Three (now renamed after drummer WS Holland joined), and written by Jack Clement, the almost-barbershop/doo wop feel of the tune was a slight departure from the rockin’ country sound that Cash was forging for himself at the time. It hit the news again it 2010 when it became the 10 billionth song to be downloaded from iTunes. Fancy that!

DON’T TAKE YOUR GUNS TO TOWN

LABEL Columbia
RECORDED 1958

This was the sad tale of a mother pleading with her naive cowboy son, Billy Joe, not to take his firearms into town on a night out at the local saloon. Typically, as is the way in such stories, he ignores all parental guidance and, after a steadying couple of drinks, gets into a gunfight and ends up perishing on the bar floor with his poor mum’s advice ringing around his head. Cash’s version, produced by Don Law, became his fifth No.1 on the country chart in 1959, holding still at the top for an impressive six weeks, and he’d later revisit it for a VH1 Storytellers session with Willie Nelson in 1998. U2 have also covered the song, which is nice.

SEASONS OF MY HEART

LABEL Columbia
RECORDED 1960

For Johnny’s 1960 album Now There’s A Song he paid homage to the likes of Marty Robbins, Hank Williams and, with Seasons Of My Heart, George Jones. The album came as a bit of a shock to Cash fans as it featured not only his usual musical cohorts but also Hank Williams’ steel player Don Helms and the distinctive piano of Floyd Cramer. In truth, Johnny’s touristing around the various facets of country proved him to be a fine re-interpreter of others’ work, but it also showed how unique his own work was. Seasons Of My Heart reached #10 in the country rundown; it was his last Top 10 hit for a couple of years as he struggled to adjust to the new decade, and the new folk boom.

TENNESSEE FLAT TOP BOX

LABEL Columbia
RECORDED 1961

A story about a young lad who wants to be a country star, and gets a start in his career in a local club in his hometown in South Texas. Although he’s not much of a singer, he can play the acoustic ‘flat top’ guitar; in fact he’s so good at it that fans pawn their jewellery for money to get to his shows to hear him play. One day he simply vanishes without a trace, to the huge regret of his female fans, but then, behold – he turns up on the hit parade, a national star. The song was a hit for Johnny in 1960, and Rosanne Cash covered it for her 1987 album King’s Record Shop. Johnny, ever the proud dad, reckoned that Rosanne’s success with the song was one of his greatest fulfilments.

IN THE JAILHOUSE NOW

LABEL Columbia
RECORDED 1962

In The Jailhouse Now was a novelty song based in vaudeville and music hall from the early 20th century. Jimmie Rogers’ recording from 1928 has long been considered as the definitive version, but on Cash’s cover of the song from 1962, he used lyrics that he’d learnt from the jug-band musicians in Memphis. A lot of people thought it was a bit cheeky and said Cash was covering Rogers, just because that was the version people knew, but the song’s origins as a jug band groover suggest it was not so. Anyway, Cash got a #8 hit out of it, and it would be passed on and appear on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? film and soundtrack.

RING OF FIRE

LABEL Columbia
RECORDED 1963

Written by June Carter and Merle Kilgore about falling in love – although that’s disputed by Cash’s first wife, who wasn’t taking kindly to Carter stealing her man and claimed it was about a certain body part and that Cash added the credit as “she needs the money”. Ouch. It was originally recorded by Anita Carter for her album Folk Songs Old And New as (Love’s) Ring Of Fire. Johnny claimed he had a dream where he imagined it sounding better with some Mariachi horns, and recorded it thus after Anita’s original had flopped. In an early example of sampling, the trumpet riff was also referenced by The Ethiopians on Train To Skaville in 1967.

UNDERSTAND YOUR MAN

LABEL Columbia
RECORDED 1964

Borrowing touches from Bob Dylan’s Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright, Cash’s Understand Your Man became his seventh #1 in early 1964. With his traditional band set-up augmented by Don Helms on steel guitar and Karl Garvin and Bill McElhiney on trumpets echoing those on Ring Of Fire, Cash comes across as a bit of a black-hearted character. It would also be the last song he would ever perform live at a concert at Carter Family Fold in Hiltons, Virginia, on July 5th 2003. After a short set of seven songs, he introduced Understand Your Man by telling the audience that he’d not played it live for 25 years.

THE BALLAD OF IRA HAYES

LABEL Columbia
RECORDED 1964

Taken from his 1964 Americana concept album Bitter Tears, wherein Cash explored the history of Native Americans, The Ballad of Ira Hayes was one of five featured compositions by Peter La Farge, a folk singer who was affiliated with Dylan in the early ’60s. Ira was one of the six Marines who raised the flag on Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima of WW2, then came home to hostility from his hometown and people, turned to booze and ended up dead in a ditch. Cash faced backlash from radio stations that refused to play it, so he paid for an advert which called DJs “gutless” and questioning their ban.

ORANGE BLOSSOM SPECIAL

LABEL Columbia
RECORDED 1965

The original Orange Blossom Special was written by Ervin T Rouse in the late ’30s, and by the ’50s it had become known as a tune that any self-respecting violin player should know how to play at bluegrass knees-ups, leading to its nickname of “the fiddle player’s anthem”. Cash reinstated the original lyrics and replaced the fiddling parts with harmonicas and a saxophone (although no doubt he could have got an actual fiddler in, seeing as Nashville was up to its neck in them at the time). When Cash learned about the true authorship of the song – a share had been claimed by bluegrass fiddler Chubby Wise – he tracked down Rouse and invited him to join him onstage at a concert in Miami.

IT AIN’T ME BABE

LABEL Columbia
RECORDED 1965

Cash’s 1965 album Orange Blossom Special featured a few Dylan numbers such as Mama You’ve Been On My Mind, Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright and this duet with June Carter Cash. Cash had written to Dylan about how much he enjoyed his Freewheelin’ LP, and the pair met up in a motel after the Newport Folk Festival in 1964 to trade songs. Dylan’s then-love interest Joan Baez wrote out the words to Mama… and It Ain’t Me Babe for Cash to take away with him. Despite a lifelong friendship, the two only recorded together once in 1969. A plan to record an album of duets across a few days failed to ignite, but songs do crop up on Dylan bootlegs.

THE ONE ON THE RIGHT IS ON THE LEFT

LABEL Columbia
RECORDED 1966

Cash took the unusual step of recording an album of comic songs, Everybody Loves A Nut, with numbers such as Dirty Old Egg Sucking Dog (which Cash would later perform with The Muppets) and The Bug That Tried To Crawl Around The World. Jack Clement’s song about a folk group that decides to get political and how it all goes horribly wrong was a little bit too on the nose. With its ending of a warning to other folk groups not to mix music and politics and just “play your banjo well”, Cash was perhaps being just a bit cheeky releasing it as a single.

JACKSON

LABEL Columbia
RECORDED 1967

In 1967, you couldn’t move for versions of Jackson. Well, at least two, anyway. The bigger hit came along when Nancy Sinatra & Lee Hazelwood released a rendition of it that July. However, Johnny and June’s interpretation of the Billy Edd Wheeler and Jerry Leiber-penned number about a sparkless married couple going to the titular town to find a bit of fresh action got there first in February when they recorded it for the marvellously-titled duets album, Carryin’ On With Johnny Cash & June Carter. It went on to become one of their biggest hits, bagging them a Grammy for Best Country Performance Duet the next year.

FOLSOM PRISON BLUES

LABEL Columbia
RECORDED 1968

Originally written in 1953 and recorded two years later for his debut album, Folsom Prison Blues reached No.4 back in 1956. Due to having no drummer at the time, Cash inserted some paper into his guitar strings to replicate a brush shuffle. The song gained greater success when it was performed, and recorded, at Folsom Prison in 1968. The cheering that followed one of Cash’s signature lines, “I shot a man in Reno/ Just to watch him die” was added later, as the prisoners weren’t keen on any reprisals from guards if they were seen to be agreeing with Cash’s observations of prison life. Folsom Prison Blues won him a Grammy, and Pitchfork now considers it to be one of the Top 10 songs of the decade.

DADDY SANG BASS

LABEL Columbia
RECORDED 1968

Referencing the Christian hymn Will The Circle Be Unbroken in its refrain, Daddy Sang Bass was written by Carl Perkins after Cash had helped him through his alcoholism while on tour (the line “Me and my brother will join right in there” was written, said Cash, about his late brother Jack). Having been through addiction himself before turning to God, Cash was able to help the Blue Suede Shoes writer face his demons, and in return got one of his biggest hits when it was released as the only single from the album The Holy Land: it topped the Billboard country charts for six weeks. Perkins would also pop up again at the infamous San Quentin gig, playing lead guitar on Johnny’s next hit.

A BOY NAMED SUE

LABEL Columbia
RECORDED 1969

Cash’s biggest US hit, reaching #2 in 1969, A Boy Named Sue tells of a man tracking down his father to explain his choice of moniker; in typical country parental skills fashion, Sue’s dad claims he named him that out of love, and that he would have to grow up and “get tough or die”. It was written by Shel Silverstein about how humourist Jean Shepherd coped with life with a feminine name. Cash had only briefly looked over the lyrics before performing it for his At San Quentin album, but the spontaneous performance became a highlight of the show. Cash performed the song at numerous concerts, and even delivered it at the White House.

SUNDAY MORNIN’ COMIN’ DOWN

LABEL Columbia
RECORDED 1970

Back in 1969, budding songwriter Kris Kristofferson had begun working as a janitor at Columbia. He’d hang around the studios hoping to catch Cash’s attention, but knew he’d be sacked if he tried to give him any songs; instead he befriended June and sneaked tapes into her handbag (there’s also a story of Kristofferson landing a helicopter on Cash’s lawn at Old Hickory Lake; this likely happened, but apparently Cash was not at home). Eventually the charm offensive worked, and Cash introduced Sunday Morning Coming Down on his TV show with the words “Here’s a song written by Kris Kristofferson. Don’t forget that name”.

IF I WERE A CARPENTER

LABEL Columbia
RECORDED 1970

Doomed American folk-singer Tim Hardin may not have sold many records himself, but his best-known songs like Reason To Believe are known to millions via other people. If I Were A Carpenter has been through a variety of interpretations over the years, with the likes of Bobby Darin, Joan Baez, Bob Seger and Robert Plant all having a crack at it; the Four Tops’ version was perhaps the biggest hit of all of them. On the version from his 1970 album Hello I’m Johnny Cash, Johnny is joined by June Carter Cash on what would become another Grammy-winning duet and their biggest-selling single together.

WHAT IS TRUTH

LABEL Columbia
RECORDED 1970

Released in February 1970, What Is Truth saw Cash commenting on the Vietnam war. Chiming with the hippie set and young scene, the song was a crossover success. Some of Cash’s more conservative fans reacted badly to this identification with anti-war protesters; it also got him in a spot of bother with Nixon. Presidential adviser Murray Chotiner felt that Cash might upset the Republican masterplan and hoped Nixon would set him straight at a White House event. Nixon had requested Merle Haggard’s Okie From Muskogee, but Cash is said to have responded by pointedly playing What Is Truth, The Man In Black and The Ballad of Ira Hayes.

FLESH AND BLOOD

LABEL Columbia
RECORDED 1970

The 1970 film I Walk The Line starred Gregory Peck as a town sheriff who unwisely topples for the charms of young Tuesday Weld, daughter of a local moonshine king. Flesh And Blood became the lead-off song from the Cash-written soundtrack, and he also re-recorded his 1956 hit I Walk The Line for it. Backed by the Carter family on vocals and with a core band of Marshall Grant, WS Holland and Bob Wootton, Cash sang a lyric concerned a man realising that while the natural world is great to commune with once in a while, one still requires the comfort of another human now and then. Reaching #1 in the country charts in January 1971, it did slightly better business than the film itself.

MAN IN BLACK

LABEL Columbia
RECORDED 1971

Few artists have the ability to make a protest song turn into their very own theme tune, but that’s what happened with Man In Black. Cash was re-establishing himself as a redeemed character after a decade in the throes of addiction. Speaking up for the downtrodden and hard-done by and the war in Vietnam, he explained the reasoning behind his stage wardrobe: “I’d love to wear a rainbow every day and tell the world that everything’s okay… ‘Til things are brighter, I’m the man in black”. It’s an outlook any goth could get behind. Fans made it into his unofficial nickname, and Cash never wore any other colour again. Possibly.

A THING CALLED LOVE

LABEL Columbia
RECORDED 1971

This cheery song about a “giant of a man brought down to his knees by love” was Cash’s biggest hit across Europe, reaching #4 in the UK and #1 in Ireland in 1971. He was joined on backing vocals by the Evangel Temple Choir, a Nashville church pastored by Hank Snow’s son, Jimmie Rodgers Snow. Cash had become a regular at the church while he was reconnecting with his faith, and had collaborated with evangelist Billy Graham on his previous album. This Jimmy Reed song would help shift Cash from ‘bad boy’ into something more universal. It would also be recorded by Elvis Presley for his 1972 gospel album He Touched Me.

ONEY

LABEL Columbia
RECORDED 1972

Continuing in his quest to champion the rights of the working man, ‘Oney’, as Cash puts it in his spoken word intro, goes out “to the working man/ For every man that puts in a hard eight or 10 hours a day of work and toil and sweat/ Always got somebody looking down his neck/ Trying to get more out of him than he really ought to have to put in”. Oney is a strict good-for-nothing boss which our protagonist hopes to give a beating to, in exchange for his gold watch, when he retires after 25 years of hard work. Produced by Larry Butler, it was the biggest hit from Cash’s Any Old Wind That Blows set in 1973.

RAGGED OLD FLAG

LABEL Columbia
RECORDED 1974

Johnny Cash hasn’t been exactly shy of including the odd spoken word section in his songs down the years, but this title track – and only single – from the album of the same name was a new move. Here, in the aftermath of Watergate, Cash delivered a semi-poetic patriotic speech about the Stars and Stripes. He encounters an old man on a county court square, and passes remarks about the state of the place before being informed at some length about the many battles that occurred over its history to make it like that. The song has been one of Cash’s catalogue that has been co-opted by right-wing extremists in recent years, and its use has since been denounced by Rosanne Cash.

THE JUNKIE AND THE JUICEHEAD (MINUS ME)

LABEL Columbia
RECORDED 1974

The 1974 titular album from which this cut first appeared is thought to be something of a mess: Cash self-produced it with the assistance of studio engineer Charlie Bragg, taking a slightly more laidback approach than on his earlier albums. It also marked the recording debut of daughters Rosanne Cash and Carlene Carter (the latter credited as Carlene Routh). That said, this Kris Kristofferson-penned tune is the best of the lot. Released as a single, it completely bypassed the charts (aside from a #32 showing in the Canadian country charts), but deserves a wider audience of anyone willing to dig through the vast Cash crates a bit.

ONE PIECE AT A TIME

LABEL Columbia
RECORDED 1976

A jolly tale about a Detroit car plant worker who steals “one piece at a time” over several years at work by stashing parts in his unusually large lunch box, until he’s finally able to assemble his own motor, a “psychobilly Cadillac”, but encounters problems when the differing ages of the parts leave the finished car looking somewhat, well… unique. The song even ends with a CB radio conversation – as was the gadget du jour for country music in 1976 – between Cash and a trucker. Written by Wayne Kemp and recorded with the Tennessee Three for the hit album of the same name, it was Cash’s last country No.1 .

THERE AIN’T NO GOOD CHAIN GANG

LABEL Columbia
RECORDED 1978

Waylon Jennings was quite a revolutionary character when he relocated to Nashville back in the 1970s. In a bid to gain creative freedom he veered sharply off the country map towards much more rockier areas; this was something of a shock to the Nashville tradition at the time, and it led to Jennings’ output being branded “outlaw country”. His rebellion inspired Cash – along with Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson – to follow suit, and a new sub-genre was born. This Hal Bynum and Dave Kirby-written duet concerning a prison inmate listing the lessons he’s learned in jail became a No.2 hit for Jennings and Cash in 1978.

JOHNNY 99

LABEL Columbia
RECORDED 1983

Released in 1983, the more politically-charged Johnny 99 was one of Cash’s strongest releases during something of a dry period career-wise, even if musically it predicted the more rockabilly end of New Country by a good six years. Johnny 99 featured a pair of covers of Bruce Springsteen songs – Highway Patrolman and Johnny 99 – that had originally appeared on the Boss’ 1982 album Nebraska. Cash was clearly a fan enough to name his album after the song, identifying similar themes of ‘good men going bad’ in Bruce’s work to those he’d made his own, and would also elegantly cover I’m On Fire for a Springsteen tribute album in 2000.

HIGHWAYMAN

LABEL Columbia
RECORDED 1985

Forming the supergroup that all other supergroups should call ‘Sir’, Cash, along with Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, became The Highwaymen in 1985 in order to lay down this Jimmy Webb-written number, a song that Glen Campbell – who had recorded a version himself – brought to Cash’s attention. With the encouragement of Cash’s son-in-law and guitarist Marty Stuart, the song found each one singing a verse about a highwayman, a sailor, construction worker or a starship commander. Reaching #1 in 1985, the song earned Jimmy Webb a Grammy for Best Country Song in 1986.

DELIA’S GONE

LABEL American Recordings
RECORDED 1994

The tale of the killing of 14-year-old Delia Green in Savannah, Georgia in 1900 by another 14-year-old, her boyfriend Mose ‘Cooney’ Houston had inspired songwriters at the time, and Delia’s Gone, told from the perspective of the killer, became one of the key songs of the early 1960s folk revival (as did the Blind Willie McTell-penned Delia of the 1920s, a more ambiguous view of what happened, which Bob Dylan had a crack at). Cash would record no less than four versions of Delia’s Gone over the years, and his last one for American Recordings in 1994 featured, um, the decidedly not 14 or African-American Kate Moss acting the part of ‘Delia’ in its accompanying video.

RUSTY CAGE

LABEL American Recordings
RECORDED 1996

For the second of Cash’s albums with Rick Rubin, 1996’s Grammy-winning American II: Unchained, Cash eschewed the solo approach and was backed by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers with guests such as Flea, Mick Fleetwood and Lindsey Buckingham. His cover of Soundgarden’s 1992 hit Rusty Cage tones down the original heaviness to give it a different form of Southern Gothic gravitas, and saw him nominated for Best Male Country Vocal. The band’s late singer Chris Cornell, not known for the clarity of his delivery, commented, “When Johnny Cash covered Rusty Cage, it was the first time I received compliments for my lyrics.”

THE MAN COMES AROUND

LABEL American Recordings
RECORDED 2002

This epic tale of apocalypse, with Cash reinterpreting Revelations, was written several years beforehand, but Cash updated it ahead of its recording. It was based on a dream that Johnny had about the Queen, who compared the singer to “a thorn tree in a whirlwind”. Slightly spooked out by all this, Cash checked to see if the phrase was biblical, eventually finding a similar phrase in the Book of Job. With added references to the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, the Road to Damascus and the Second Coming, it became the title track of American IV. One of three originals among the set, it has gone on to be used in many films and TV shows.

HURT

LABEL American Recordings
RECORDED 2003

Few imagined when Nine Inch Nails first appeared all self-harmy, rubbered up and off their faces on most of the drugs with Pretty Hate Machine that they would be a suitable act for Cash to cover on the fourth of his ‘American’ series of albums. However, a cover of their 1995 song Hurt became one of Cash’s last big hits, with Cash’s version swapping the line “crown of shit” for “crown of thorns”, which was more in line with his Christianity. The video – featuring a very frail-looking Johnny along with June – was deemed the best of all time by the New Musical Express, and he became the oldest artist to be nominated for an MTV video award.

GOD’S GONNA CUT YOU DOWN

LABEL American Recordings
RECORDED 2006

God’s Gonna Cut You Down was produced by Rick Rubin for American V: A Hundred Highways in 2003, which when released posthumously in 2006 became Cash’s first #1 album in over 37 years. The song has mutated through the years; originally brought to the fore by folk singer Odetta in 1956 as well as the Blind Boys Of Alabama, it is a significantly different arrangement to the traditional folk number Run On For A Long Time or Run Onwhich Presley recorded, and was also sampled by Moby for his album Play in 1999. Cash’s version has been taken up by everyone from computer games to sports tournaments, and has since sold over 700,000 copies.

SHE USED TO LOVE ME A LOT

LABEL Columbia
RECORDED 2014

The raiding of an artist’s archives can provide varying results – and sometimes you can understand all too clearly why something remained unreleased in the first place. When it was announced in 2014 that a posthumous collection of lost Cash recordings from the early 1980s were to be released as Out Among The Stars, it seemed a little strange to refocus on Cash’s not particularly successful years. However, when the set of songs – recorded with producer Billy Sherrill but shelved by Columbia – were unearthed by Cash’s son John in 2012, they thankfully proved to be rather good… showing that even when Johnny Cash was on autopilot, he could still be capable of real magic.

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