Johnny Cash was a man of immense talents, and perhaps his greatest gift was instilling his emotions into other artists’ creations.
From traditionals like “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” to “Ring Of Fire”, Johnny Cash covered songs he could relate to, songs to which he could bring a new edge. And sometimes Cash covered songs no one would expect, making them not only country, but also his own.
10. I Hung My Head
Sting is a self-proclaimed fan of country music, so he had to be thrilled with this cover of his 1996 release. A great story song about a boy accidentally shooting someone, Johnny Cash included it on his 20012 album American IV: The Man Comes Around.
The lead track off of 1996’s Unchained – Cash’s second American recording – was written by Beck and first released in 1994. Oddly enough, Beck’s version had an older, more hillbilly feel than Cash’s cover does, but the Man in Black gave the song a rawness that brings out the heartache.
8. Father and Son
Cash covered this 1970 Cat Stevens song twice. First in 1974 on The Junkie and the Juicehead Minus Me and in the posthumously released box set, Unearthed. Both versions are duets – the first with Cash’s stepdaughter Rosie Nix Adams and the latter with Fiona Apple, my favorite. Apple’s vocals are more subtle than Adams’ and Cash’s voice is rougher, a combination that brings out the sentiments of the song.
Released in 2000, on American III: Solitary Man, “One” is a cover of a U2 classic. Written when the band was in turmoil about the direction of their sound, the song took on new meaning in Cash’s hands. At the time, the aging singer was aware of the increasing fragility of his voice and that his health was in decline.
6. In My Life
37 years passed between the Beatles 1965 release of “In My Life” and Cash’s cover. The entire American IV: The Man Comes Around album is stripped down and stark, and it’s wrought with naked emotion. This song of remembrance means all the more when sung from Cash’s point of reflection.
5. Personal Jesus
It can be argued that Cash saved his best for last, as this is another track from American IV: The Man Comes Around – the last album released before his death in 2003. Much bluesier than Depeche Mode’s 1989 version, Cash’s prayer here is masterly supported by guitarists John Frusciante (Red Hot Chili Peppers) and Mike Campbell (Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers.)
4. Rusty Cage
Over the years, Cash was at his best when he was pissed off. This cover of Soundgarden’s 1992 single filled that bill. Appearing on American II: Unchained, Cash broke free and seemed to be singing directly to the mainstream country record execs that had tossed him out to rust. When the tone changes halfway through the song you can feel the thump of his fists down in your chest. The album took home the Grammy for Best Country Album rattling Nashville’s cage in doing so.
3. If I Could Read Your Mind
This was Gordon Lightfoot’s first American hit in 1971. Cash’s version was released in July 2006, nearly three years after his death. His voice breaks often and his pace quickens almost as if he knew the sand was slipping ever so faster.
2. Southern Accents
Tom Petty reportedly broke his hand punching a wall during the band’s original recording session for this single’s namesake album over the band’s different ideas of how it should sound. Johnny Cash settled any debate with his version on Unchained. His version of “Southern Accent” brings Petty’s words alive in poignant fashion.
“Wow… Tears welling, silence, goose-bumps… Wow. [I felt like] I just lost my girlfriend, because that song isn’t mine anymore.” That’s what Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Rezner said after watching the video for Cash’s version of his own song. Cash’s cut of “Hurt” for American IV: The Man Come Around made us feel every last word of the lyrics. The imagery in the music video, filmed just months before Cash’s death, powerfully complemented the song. The song and the video earned critical acclaim and several awards. Cash’s version of “Hurt” can simply be summed up as a haunting classic.