Johnny Cash‘s classic “Folsom Prison Blues” might just be the most covered county music standard of them all. Everyone from aspiring country singers to folk songwriters, punk rock bands and rockabilly purists bust out their own versions on stages from Pensacola to Bakersfield.
A quick round of word association evokes memories of the Man in Black, Memphis, Sun Records, Sam Phillips, shooting a man in Reno and a steam-powered railroad train. The song sits at an important historical crossroads for both rock and country music, so it’s no wonder that so many singers muster up their best husky voice in between those famous opening chords and the proverbial final lonesome whistle.
One of the seminal composers of early pop music set the groundwork for Johnny Cash. Gordon Jenkins’ “Crescent City Blues,” a slower 16-bar blues tune, was adapted by Cash into something more upbeat and memorable. Cash first heard the song while stationed in Germany for the Air Force. The obscure original inspired a history-altering alteration.
In the wrong hands, the legendary train song becomes the scourge of dive bars. Yet with so many cover versions out there over the past 60 years, there’s bound to be some amazing studio and live versions by a wide variety artists. Here’s a quick roundup of 5 memorable versions of one of country music’s all-time greatest songs.
Jerry Lee Lewis
The classic Memphis artists all did amazing covers of each others’ songs, with the greatest example being Elvis Presley’s version of Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes.” This less obvious example finds the Killer getting a little funky, with his Southern drawl adding a little extra sleaze to Cash’s ballad about falling short of being a good boy.
Walk the Line ranks alongside Coal Miner’s Daughter on the list of Hollywood’s greatest treatments of country music legends. Like Sissy Spacek before him, Joaquin Phoenix took his role as a singer seriously. His darn near accurate recreation of Cash’s signature songs proves that even rich folks out in California get some of the best music to come out of Tennessee.
Who better to spice up Cash and Luther Perkins’ famous opening chords than one of country music’s greatest and most beloved guitarists? Jerry Reed injected a little funk into one of his most overlooked cover songs, sprucing up the doggone lonesome feel of the original.
What can’t Chris Stapleton do when it comes singing and picking blues-infused country and rock music? This live version captures Stapleton’s unmatched vocal talents as effectively as many of his ballyhooed studio recordings. Taking high praise a step further, it establishes that Stapleton can blow minds by harnessing some of the same on-stage magic as Johnny Cash.