Top 10 Johnny Cash Hidden Gems
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Top 10 Johnny Cash Hidden Gems – Listen To These Underrated Songs

Johnny Cash certainly is having a moment. Twenty-one years after his death in 2003 at 71, an album titled Songwriter featuring 11 previously unreleased songs he wrote is slated to drop on June 28, according to Variety.

That's not all. Plans are underway to pay tribute to the fabled Man in Black in his home state of Arkansas, where a post office will bear his name, and at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., where a statue of him is going to be installed. No matter what Cash sang, his unvarnished humanity and humility come across clearly. A brilliant storyteller and gifted artist, his appeal transcended genre boundaries and ever-evolving popular musical tastes.

All Cash had to do was grab his guitar and begin singing. He was classic country all the way. As his official website states, he was "a role model in the everlasting pursuit of Redemption and the promise of the unclouded day." It seems like a fitting time to look back at Cash's massive output - he released a staggering total of 97 albums between 1954 and 2003 - to celebrate some of his songs that never got the love they deserved.  Some are rollicking, others are more subdued. We're showcasing a few of these enduring, relatively unheralded treasures.

Most Underrated Johnny Cash Songs

"Rock Island Line" (1957) likened the way Cash performed this song to how Tina Turner handled her rendition of "Proud Mary" - starting off mellow and meandering by speaking the lyrics and then quickly ratcheting up the tempo.

Originally recorded in 1934 by inmates of a prison in Arkansas, reported the BBC in "The People's Songs," an eclectic mix of renowned performers also covered this tune, among them The Weavers, Pete Seeger, Bobby Darin, Lead Belly, Harry Belafonte and even Ringo Starr. But Cash put his inimitable stamp on it in a way that only he could.

"Down the Rock Island Line, she's a mighty good road
Rock Island Line, it's the road to ride
Rock Island Line, it's a mighty good road
Well, if you ride it, you got to ride it like you find it
Get your ticket at the station for the Rock Island Line..."

"Ballad of a Teenage Queen" (1958)

This song has been called "the ultimate version of Cash's 1950s sound" by Grunge.

Obscure today, it muscled the rambunctious Jerry Lee Lewis classic "Great Balls of Fire" off the peak of the country hits chart.

With backing vocals by The Tennessee Two, "Ballad of a Teenage Queen" retains the power and beauty it had back in the late '50s, when Dwight Eisenhower was president and gas cost 30 cents a gallon.

"She was tops in all, they said
It never once went to her head
She had everything it seems
Not a care, this teenage queen
(Not a care, this teenage queen)..."

"I Feel Better All Over" (1960)

Co-written by Kenny Rogers (yes, that Kenny Rogers!) and Leon Smith, this irresistible song will lure you onto the dance floor for a twirl or two with its zesty beat and lively orchestration. It's a track from Cash's album Now, There Was A Song!

"Well I feel better all over
More than anywhere else, baby
When I'm out with you

Well I feel better all over
More than anywhere else
When you kiss me like you do..."

"Route No. 1, Box 144" (1970)

Cash scrawled this song on pieces of notebook paper. Released at the height of the Vietnam War, it marks the life and death of a soldier who made the ultimate sacrifice. Like so many other young men who perished in that conflict, the one Cash sung about was special yet so utterly typical.

"His dying barely made the morning paper
And they summed it up in twenty words or more
Killed in action leaves wife and baby
At Route 1 Box 144..."

"These Are My People" (1972)

Johnny Cash salutes the legacy of his ancestors in this ode from his America: a 200-Year Salute in Story and Song album. The lyrics are stirring, displaying his affinity for being "a songwriter, storyteller, history buff and patriot": 

"These are my people
This is a land where my forefathers lie
These are my people
In brotherhood, we're heirs of a creed to live by
A creed that proclaims that by loved one's blood stains
This is my land and these are my people..."

"The Good Earth" (1973)

Johnny Cash's deep reverence for the land and people he came from are honored in "The Good Earth." This theme is one that reflects the quintessential Cash. In his life and his art, despite fame and fortune, he never downplayed his roots. Check out these lyrics:

"And when I'll breathe my last breath which may not be too long
Just shovel a little good earth over my head
'Til everybody open up the hymn book and sing a happy song..."

"Look At Them Beans" (1975)

In the finest vein of country music storytelling, this song from an album of the same name describes a family of hard-working farmers. The father died without fulfilling his life's dream of hauling in a good crop.

Finally, there is one, complete with tomatoes, peas, corn and watermelons. The rich, homespun imagery and spoken lyrics delivered with the gusto of an evangelical preacher make "Look At Them Beans" a real standout.

"I just wish that papa was here right now

So that he could see this good crop we finally got

Hey look at that beans and look at that corn

And I bet them watermelons must be three feet long..."

"I Will Dance With You" (1977)

First released in 1977 on Cash's album The Last Gunfighter Ballad, he also recorded it as a duet with Karen Brooks in 1985. Both versions are impressive. Dramatic and a great example of vintage Cash, his loyal devotees as well as newcomers to his oeuvre will adore this.

"I sang your song before you ever came along
But that don't mean I'll sing along
I've never waltzed the home sweet home
But I will dance with you

I'd spread my wings before you ever learned to fly
Like flocks of wild geese in the sky
See one more shore before they die
I will fly with you..."

"Heavy Metal (Don't Mean Rock & Roll to Me)" (1987)

Johnny Cash wasn't referring to Led Zeppelin here. This song does have a different sound than what you might expect from Cash, though. Its intensity and air of drama combine for a memorable listen.

Anyone who has ever had a huge machine beneath them and experienced its raw power will definitely get the meaning of this tune. It's on Cash's Johnny Cash Is Coming to Town album.

"Some days I think this old machine is out to get me
Some days she does what I tell her
It's like dancing with the widow-maker forty hours a week
I'm talkin' 'bout a big old D10 Caterpillar

I don't know why I like to drive 'em like I do
It ain't nothin' but a hundred and seventy-five thousand pounds of steel
Could be the money babe, could be the power.
Could be I love the way it feels

"Hurt" (2002)

Released the year before Johnny Cash died, this song could have been his valedictory to music, to the public, and to life. His voice was gruffer than ever, his tone sorrowful.  The lyrics are achingly poignant when you consider them in light of Cash's impending mortality.

Penned by Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor, he graciously acknowledged that after Cash magnificently covered it, the "song isn't mine anymore."

"What have I become?
My sweetest friend
Everyone I know goes away
In the end

And you could have it all
My empire of dirt
I will let you down
I will make you hurt..."