On Sept. 16, 1969, Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue” hit No. 1 on the country charts. By all accounts, the song is one of Cash’s most iconic recordings. To this day, “A Boy Named Sue” permeates pop culture. Even if some folks don’t realize where it came from.
For the most part, the song was never meant for a widespread audience. That’s probably because it deals with its main character trying to kill his father.
But when Johnny Cash first performed the song live, he figured that kind of thing might resonate with his audience. Because the first time he performed it live was for a room full of convicts. And completely unrehearsed.
That’s right, Cash chose to play “A Boy Named Sue” for the first time at his infamous San Quentin State Prison performance. And the whole thing was kind of June Carter’s idea, to be honest.
A Song About a Boy
Johnny and June first heard the song at a guitar pull in Tennessee. (That’s where writers take turn singing their songs). Shel Silverstein, a noted poet, cartoonist and humorist wrote the song after a conversation with his friend Jean Shepherd, who relayed his childhood dismay at being made fun of for what other kids perceived to be a “girl’s name.”
Silverstein, who had increasingly dabbled in songwriting since the late 50s, wrote “Boy Named Sue” and released it on his 1969 album Boy Named Sue and His Other Country Songs (produced by Chet Atkins). You may best recognize Silverstein is a children’s author, but he had a long and respected career in adult works, too.
In fact, Silverstein wrote with Kris Kristofferson and had a few songs performed by Loretta Lynn, among many other artists in several genres. Here’s his original version of the song. Note the different delivery and the over-the-top performance. You can instantly hear the humorist’s personal twists.
An Unplanned Smash Hit
Naturally, Johnny’s better half June Carter Cash (at the time they were just barely married, but had worked together forever) knew the song was a perfect fit for Johnny. He’d heard Shel’s version but had never performed the song before.
So, Cash brought the lyrics with him on the way to San Quentin. When he started the song, the band just improvised behind him and Cash repeatedly referred to the lyric sheet on stage. They didn’t spend much time on it because they thought it may just be a novelty performance.
The captive audience raved.
Everything about the performance was about as authentic as it’d get. Cash pulls of the performance as if he’d rehearsed every word. His form of talk-singing just kind of came as a natural extension of not having any melody in mind. And when you hear him chuckle, it’s an honest reaction to Silverstein’s clever writing.
The audience reaction was a welcome surprise to Cash. Not to mention everybody at the record label. Releasing the song was an obvious decision, unrehearsed arrangement and all.
An unlikely success, “A Boy Named Sue” went Gold before it even went No. 1 (which is fairly rare). It also earned a Grammy in 1970 and became Cash’s highest charting song on the Billboard Hot 100, where it stayed No. 2. for three weeks.
Pop Culture Legacy
References to “A Boy Named Sue” in pop culture abound. Just look at the episode of Nashville when Deacon name’s his new boy puppy “Sue.” (By the way, Charles Esten, who plays Deacon, ended up keeping that dog).
The song also inspired a 2004 book called A Boy Named Sue: Gender and Country Music, which explores the impact of gender on the development of country music (it’s fascinating).
From other artists like Stone Temple Pilots and Red Hot Chili Peppers to Hollywood films to TV sitcoms and children’s cartoon, “A Boy Named Sue” managed to become one of the most-referenced country songs of all time.
The song also became one of Cash’s most-requested. He played it at the White House for President Nixon. He played it on his own television show. He even invited Silverstein onto his show to sing some of his other material (and of course, “A Boy Named Sue”).
It’s a fascinating case study of a song that resonated deeply with the entire world, though nobody can quite put their finger on why. Silverstein eventually wrote a follow-up song called “Father Of A Boy Named Sue,” which tells the story from the father’s point of view.
It wasn’t a success, like, at all. Probably because it’s deeply cynical and contains some very controversial lyrics. If you really want to hear it, go here. But maybe don’t, if you want to keep your impression of the original masterpiece untainted. (Just remember, Silverstein was a humorist whose cartoons appeared in Playboy long before he was a celebrated children’s author).
But the legacy of the original San Quentin performance remains unchanged. It’s amazing how a live performance of an unrehearsed song became one of Johnny Cash’s biggest songs. And nobody but Johnny Cash could have pulled that off.