With a career spanning more than half a century, Johnny Cash has established himself as one of the most iconic and influential musicians of our 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.
To celebrate Cash's life and musical legacy, Wide Open Country has compiled the 10 best songs from the Man in Black.
10. "Sunday Mornin Coming Down" (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 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.
9. "Ballad of a Teenage Queen" (1958)
A heartfelt love story composed by Cowboy Jack Clement, "Ballad of a Teenage Queen" tells the story of a gorgeous, small-town girl who everyone wants even though she prefers her neighbor who works at the local candy store. Eventually a Hollywood scout comes along and lures her away to California. After growing famous there, the girl soon grows homesick and longs for the boy at the grocery store, leading her to get on a train back home to be with her lover. The song ended up being the biggest charting hit of Cash's career, staying on top for 10 weeks.
8. "A Boy Named Sue" (1969)
Penned by Shel Silverstein, "A Boy Named Sue" is a humorous tale of a boy whose father abandoned him when he was three, only leaving him with a guitar and his name, Sue. The boy goes on to experience rampant harassment from his peers that eventually leads him to vow to find and kill his father for giving him such an awful name. After finding him one day in Gatlinburg, Tennessee the two begin to brawl before his father admits the naming was an act of tough love since he knew he wouldn't be around to raise the boy. This caused the boy to reconcile with his father, although he still admits that he'd name his boy anything but Sue. The song shows Cash's knack for taking a seemingly mundane scenario and turning it into a colorful and humorous story for the ages.
7. "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."
6. "When The Man Comes Around" (2002)
One of the last songs that Cash penned before his death in 2003, "When 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.
5. "Jackson" (1967)
A duet with June Carter Cash, "Jackson" is one of many songs where Cash is joined by his longtime musical collaborator turned wife. Written in 1963 by Billy Edd Wheeler and Jerry Leiber, the song 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.
4. "Man In Black" (1971)
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.
3. "Folsom Prison Blues" (1955)
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.
2. "Ring Of Fire" (1963)
Written by June Carter Cash and Merle Kilgore, "Ring of Fire" is one of Cash's most recognizable hits centering around June 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 June, Cash later recorded the song 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 music songs of all-time.
1. "I Walk The Line" (1956)
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.
Honorable Mentions: "Hey Porter," "Get Rhythm," "The Ballad of Ira Hayes"
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