With a career spanning more than half a century, Johnny Cash's instantly-recognizable baritone voice and skill as a songwriter and song interpreter established himself as one of the most iconic and influential musicians of his time. His straightforward and earnest songwriting netted him tremendous cross-genre appeal that was further elevated with covers from artists like Nine Inch Nails, Soundgarden, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Sheryl Crow. Cash's mastery of multiple American styles of music brought us equally vital covers, from his takes on standards ("Orange Blossom Special," "God's Gonna Cut You Down," "(Ghost) Riders in the Sky") to countrified reimaginings of songs by his folk contemporaries (Bob Dylan's "It Ain't Me Babe" "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," Tim Hardin's "If I Were a Carpenter") and country predecessors (Jimmie Rodgers' "Blue Yodel No. 1 (T for Texas)," Hank Snow-via-Geoff Mack's "I've Been Everywhere") contemporaries.
Cash's career spanned many eras. His first success in Tennessee came in Memphis, not Nashville, where he was on the ground level of Sun Records' rockabilly revolution, contributing "Get Rhythm," "Big River" and "Hey Porter" to the same moment that brought us Elvis Presley. Music City stardom followed in the '60s, with Cash focusing the next decade on faith and family while furthering his musical legacy. The '80s brought supergroup The Highwaymen, with the '90s and early aughts finding Cash affirmed by his American Recordings redemption arc.
To celebrate Cash's life and musical legacy, Wide Open Country has compiled the 10 best songs from the Man in Black's massive back catalog.
10. "Sunday Morning Coming Down" (The Johnny Cash Show, 1970)
Written by Kris Kristofferson and first recorded by Ray Stevens in 1969, Cash popularized the song about depression-era folks train hopping from town to town in search of work, like his own father. His 11th no. 1 Billboard hit, the song kicked off a fruitful friendship between Cash and Kristofferson that eventually led to them teaming up with Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson (The Highwaymen) a decade and a half later to record their iconic Highwaymen album. Listen here.
9. "Ballad of a Teenage Queen" (Sings the Songs That Made Him Famous, 1958)
8. "A Boy Named Sue" (At San Quentin, 1969)
At San Quentin, which arrived one year after career benchmark At Folsom Prison. Listen here.
7. "One Piece at a Time" (One Piece at a Time, 1976)
The Country Music Hall of Fame member's wit is on full display on "One Piece At A Time," a blue collar tune written by Wayne Kemp about working on the assembly line for General Motors in Detroit and sneaking parts into his lunchbox to take home to build himself a car with. All goes according to plan with Cash as he gathers "the little things I could get in my big lunchbox / like nuts, an' bolts, and all four shocks" before getting home to realize that "the transmission was a '53 and the motor turned out to be a '73 / and when we tried to put in the bolts all the holes were gone." Listen here.
6. "The Man Comes Around" (American IV: the Man Comes Around, 2002)
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One of the last songs that Cash penned before his death in 2003, "The Man Comes Around" is ripe with Biblical references, including a spoken word intro pulled from Revelation 6:1-2 in the King James Version. The song goes on to explore the futility of resisting God with references to the second coming of Christ, "Alpha and Omega" and numerous other Bible verses, illustrating Cash's God-fearing attitude and acceptance of death. Cash's faith played a role in his song choices over the decade, sometimes with much lighter-hearted material like "Daddy Sang Bass." Listen here.
5. "Jackson" (Greatest Hits, Vol. 1, 1967)
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A duet with June Carter Cash, "Jackson" is one of many songs where Cash is joined by his longtime musical collaborator turned wife. Other husband-wife duets include "Long-Legged Guitar Pickin' Man." Written in 1963 by Billy Edd Wheeler and Jerry Leiber, Grammy winner "Jackson" tells the story of a couple who has lost the "fire" in their relationship. Both have a desire to go to Jackson, where the man expects he'll be worshiped by many women, but his wife thinks people will only see him as a fool and plans to have her own fun laughing at his misdeeds. Listen here.
4. "Man In Black" (Man in Black, 1971)
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For those curious to why Cash wears black, look no further than his hit song "Man In Black." The tune goes on to note how he wears black for those who are disenfranchised and down on their luck like "the poor and the beaten down / livin' in the hopeless, hungry side of town," "the prisoner who is long paid for his crime / but is there because he's a victim of the times" and many more. The song shows that despite Cash being considered music royalty, he always looked out for the little guy and never forgot where he came from: Dyess, Ark., the setting of "Five Feet High and Rising." Other examples of Cash as a socially-aware truth-teller include "The Ballad of Ira Hayes" and "The One on the Right is on the Left." Listen here.
3. "Folsom Prison Blues" (With His Hot and Blue Guitar!, 1957)
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One of Cash's first hits, "Folsom Prison Blues" combines the classic tropes of train and prison songs to manifest a legendary tale about a person who "shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die." Cash was compelled to write the song after watching Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison while serving in the U.S. Air Force in Landsberg, Bavaria. Listen here.
2. "Ring Of Fire" (Ring of Fire: The Best of Johnny Cash, 1963)
"Ring of Fire" is one of Cash's most recognizable hits centering around Carter falling in love with him and likening it to a burning "ring of fire" due to Cash's trouble with drugs and substance abuse. Originally recorded by Carter, Cash later recorded it in 1963 with mariachi-style horns, putting a breath of fresh air into the song that helped propel it to becoming certified Gold and one of the most iconic country songs of all-time. Listen here.
1. "I Walk The Line" (With His Hot and Blue Guitar!, 1957)
Cash's first no. 1 hit on the Billboard charts, "I Walk the Line" lays out his pledge of love to his new wife at the time, Vivian Liberto. With numerous chord changes throughout, the song is not only one of Cash's best written, but also one with the most complex and captivating musical arrangements of his star-studded catalog that has helped elevate it into being a timeless classic. Listen here.
This story previously ran on April 18, 2022.
READ MORE: Johnny Cash Through the Years: Look Back at His Life in Photos
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