From the opening trumpet melody to Johnny Cash’s gravelly vocal, every aspect of “Ring Of Fire” is uncommonly iconic. The 1963 hit became synonymous with the Man In Black for the rest of his career, topping the country chart for seven weeks and spawning myriad covers in every genre over the next 50 years.
So it stands that such an uncommonly classic song has an uncommon story — and conflicting accounts of the story, at that. Just where did one of the great pieces of American music originate?
A career on the rise
Before Johnny Cash released “Ring Of Fire” as a single, he had a steadily growing career. His now-legendary 1957 debut album Johnny Cash With His Hot And Blue Guitar established a buzz that eluded the singer in his prior attempts at a gospel career.
But despite a growing career, he only had one album release that charted. 1958’s The Fabulous Johnny Cash hit No. 19. And to make matters worse, his string of top 10 radio hits was in decline, and the early 1960s felt like something of a dry spell for the new star.
And yet his personal life couldn’t have been more interesting. Tours with the Carter Family resulted in a blossoming creative relationship with June Carter, which also led to problems at home with his first wife Vivian Liberto and their young family.
A talented entertainer, singer, instrumentalist and writer, June Carter and Johny Cash shared an early fascination with each other. But the original inspiration behind the song may have been as much their budding relationship as old Elizabethan poetry.
Carter first found inspiration from the song thanks to a line in poetry book owned by her uncle A.P. She and songwriter Merle Kilgore penned the tune together after adopting the poetry into a love story.
But she didn’t actually give the song to Johnny first. Instead, she offered what was at the time called “(Love’s) Ring Of Fire” to her sister Anita, who put a folksy spin on the tune.
Though the song earned early praise, it never quite reached the level of success Anita or her label were hoping for. After sitting on it for a few months, Cash decided to record his own version.
In an interview, Johnny Cash noted that the mariachi style trumpets at the beginning of his version were a noted effort to stray a bit from the sound that earned him all his success. Cash even claimed at one point that he had a dream where the horn part played over the song.
Of course, the decision paid off in spades. By 1964, Cash’s own version, anchored by those infamous horns, was the biggest hit of his career. It also spawned another decade of steady radio and commercial success.
Plus, it didn’t hurt his image, either. Even when singing about love, Cash sang with a certain desperation. Not to mention how the imagery of falling into a ring of fire takes a particularly violent turn when rolling out of Cash’s deep baritone compared to Anita Carters beautifully, flowing alto.
The other story
Of course, that’s not the only account. Cash’s first wife Vivian Liberto claims in her book I Walked The Line: My Life With Johnny that Cash himself wrote the song with Kilgore and instead let June Carter say she wrote it because “she needs the money” and he “felt sorry for her.”
Instead, Liberto says Cash wrote the song while high on booze and pills “about a certain private female body part.” Now, as saucy as that sounds, Liberto’s account doesn’t have much corroboration. And she certainly has a motive for discrediting the authorship of June Carter’s biggest hit, seeing as Cash married Carter after Liberto divorced him in 1966.
But it doesn’t make much sense, then, that Anita Carter would sing the song before Johnny. Especially in such a different way from him.
Regardless, the song clearly resonates across genres and cultures. Even English power metal heroes Dragonforce released a shred-tastic version of the song only a few years ago. Between then, it’s been covered by everybody from Alan Jackson to Blondie to Social Distortion.
“Ring Of Fire” is the hit that truly won’t stop burning.