Because of all of that, crafting a ‘top ten’ list of Cash’s life’s work is a daunting, even frightening task. It is simply impossible to showcase this icon through a list or a playlist since he was such a prolific talent until his last breath. If you do only have time for ten songs Cash recorded, however, these ten do an elegant job of painting a portrait of the Man in Black worth remembering.
# 10 –‘The Beast In Me’ – ‘American Recordings’ – 1994
In 1994, Johnny Cash exploded back onto the popular music scene with his eighty-first album, the ‘American Recordings.’ The collection marked the first piece of a large collaboration between Cash and Rick Rubin, the Def Jam producer famous primarily for his work in the hip hop scene. When Rubin revitalized the country hero’s career in the mid 90s, an entirely new generation was introduced to Johnny Cash. On top of that, the legendary producer perfectly captured Cash’s aged, weary sound in the last decade of his life.
‘The Beast In Me’ was originally written by Nick Lowe, a British songwriter more famous for songs like ‘What’s So Funny Bout Peace, Love, And Understanding?’ and ‘Cruel To Be Kind.’ For a time, Lowe was even Cash’s son-in-law, married to Carlene Carter from 1979 to 1990. Years prior to Cash recording ‘The Beast In Me,’ Lowe wrote it with the intention of gifting the song to his father-in-law. During the composition process, Lowe penned the song in the voice of Cash. Sure enough, when Cash did get around to it in 1994, it became his song. Lowe still performs it regularly, but it will always be a Johnny Cash song after its perfect execution on the ‘American Recordings.’
(It’s also worth noting that Cash was as excellent of an interpreter as a writer, which is why a selection of these songs are ‘technically’ covers.)
# 9 – ‘I Got Stripes’ – ‘At Folsom Prison’ – 1968
When creating any sort of retrospective of Johnny Cash, it is important to understand that a large part of his catalog especially his hits, isn’t actually tied to traditional ‘albums.’ Cash got his start in the music industry about a decade before albums became relevant. Once they did come around, he explored concept albums about the Gospel and country western folk heroes and the like… but before that, his songs were known best as disjointed 45s. ‘I Got Stripes’ is probably a good example of that, because it never really got an ‘album’ release.
In 1968, Johnny Cash released a compilation record, ‘Heart of Cash,’ which did include the song. That same year, he also performed the song on ‘At Folsom Prison,’ a groundbreaking live album. In 68,’ many considered Cash to be old hat. He wasn’t selling records like he used to, and he had burnt out harshly on drugs several times. ‘At Folsom Prison’ was his resounding return to popularity, recorded at Folsom Prison in California. The live atmosphere of ‘At Folsom Prison’ is unlike any other live record. Cash interacts with the inmates throughout its entirety, and the banter is so quintessentially Johnny Cash.
‘I Got Stripes’ is an especially good outing on ‘At Folsom Prison’ due to its subject matter: getting arrested and locked up in stripes. The song is also one of the ultimate exercises through prison-related imagery for Cash. He most surely had a penchant for embodying the disenfranchised prisoner. ‘I Got Stripes’ is a short, but superb excursion through that.
# 8 – ‘Ring of Fire’ – Single – 1963
‘Ring of Fire’ is one of Johnny Cash’s most recognizable hit singles. It’s so infectiously catchy that one can’t help but sing along whenever it’s played. It’s ingrained in our public conscious, at least, in the United States, and everyone knows the song from an early age. Play ‘Ring of Fire’ at a concert and patrons young and old will sing and dance along. If that isn’t timeless, nothing is.
‘Ring of Fire’ was written, though, by Cash’s eventual wife, June Carter. Their relationship was turbulent, to say the least, and Cash had to court her for many years before they got married. They were married five years after the release of ‘Ring of Fire,’ and forevermore they were inseparable songwriters and partners. June was, of course, a member of the legendary Carter family, so she was a powerhouse that matched Cash. She wasn’t a musical spouse that rode on the coattails of her partner. ‘Ring of Fire’ embodies the early years of their crazed relationship, and love being a ‘ring of fire’ will remain a poignant theme in American songwriting forever.
# 7 – ‘Cocaine Blues’ – ‘At Folsom Prison’ – 1968
‘Cocaine Blues’ was another song that received a Johnny Cash debut at Folsom Prison in 1968. The song, while technically a cover of an old western standard, has truly become Cash’s since he performed the song. He altered the track and made it notably more edgy, especially when he declares how he “shot that bad bitch down.” Thus, it probably does walk the line (no pun intended) between family friendly and old western vulgarity. That’s what’s brilliant about it – it’s the epitome of Johnny Cash embracing rock and roll within his country music.
While ‘Cocaine Blues’ existed in varying capacities prior to Cash performing it at the prison, ever since then his version has become the definitive one. That, of course, is a trend with Johnny Cash covering both standards and contemporaries – once Cash has hold of it, you best let go, because he’s going to turn it into a Johnny Cash song.
# 6 – ‘Big River’ – Single – 1958
In 1958, Cash released a single called ‘Big River,’ a rockabilly song that further concreted his stardom as it shot to the top of the charts for quite some time. The song has become a country go-to, with artists like Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings all taking to performing it on a regular basis. Why, though, is the song so exceptionally good?
It’s a classic because Cash combined a slew of genres with ‘Big River’ in 1958. It was country, but it also rockabilly, which was country’s younger, more exciting cousin at the time. Perhaps most importantly, however, it was blues. The song is a sad, melancholy folk tune. Cash was crafting that Tennessee blues into his then-contemporary music. To be blunt, it was the white man’s blues as well. The sentiments that Cash was singing about in 1958 are identical to that of Howlin’ Wolf in the same year. ‘Big River’ is a reminder of the scope of music and how so many facets of the art form can intermingle in harmony in an effortlessly fashion.
# 5 – ‘Get Rhythm’ – Single – 1956
‘Get Rhythm’ was released as the B-side to ‘Walk the Line’ in 1956 – a song found later on this list. Johnny Cash also tackled it in 1969 on an album of the same title. In the song, Cash converses with a shoeshine boy who keeps his life interesting by ‘getting rhythm’ in his work whenever he ‘feels the blues.’ He’s got the dirtiest, lowest paying job in town, but he takes solace in his ability to get rhythm and embrace the good feeling that the song evokes.
‘Get Rhythm’ is important for a few reasons. First of all, Cash’s vocal delivery is a precursor for spoken poetry – perhaps even hip hop. It predates even Dylan’s ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues.’ Second, the instrumentation of ‘Get Rhythm’ is abundantly simple. Cash is surrounded by a simple melody, soft percussion, and a foot-tapping guitar and bass riff. This formula is, more or less, present throughout his entire career. He never deviated too far from this simplicity – the same kind of presentation that screamed ‘authentic’ whenever you saw the Man in Black. He was the blue collar songwriter.
# 4 – ‘Cry, Cry, Cry’ – Single – 1955
‘Cry, Cry, Cry’ was America’s introduction to the music of Johnny Cash. It was his first single at Sun Records, a release that dominated the southern states and later moved its way through the nation as Cash’s radio popularity grew. Cash couldn’t have had a better break-out tune. It was upbeat, fun, danceable, and surprisingly harsh. The song is about a woman who spends too much time with lousy men, and by the time she realizes what she could have had with Cash, he’s just going to let her cry, cry, cry.
That type of lyricism was a stark contrast to a huge majority of what was popular in 1955. Country and pop were fluffy – just a few years prior songs like ‘How Much Is That Doggy In The Window’ were culturally predominant. Then, Johnny Cash arrived, singing about sugar daddies and leaving a promiscuous woman who “only lives to see the lights uptown.” That was a big change – earth-shattering in the music scene.
# 3 – ‘Hurt’ – ‘American IV: The Man Comes Around’ – 2002
In 2002, Rick Rubin and Johnny Cash released their fourth ‘American’ album. It would be the final album Cash would see released prior to his death shortly after. As an album, it’s a perfect finale to such an important career. (Though we continue to see Cash releases to this day, and the ‘American’ series continued to release outtakes after he passed away.) ‘Hurt,’ a Trent Reznor-penned Nine Inch Nails song, was covered on ‘American IV.’ The song is, quite simply, Johnny Cash’s swansong.
Reznor has commented that ‘Hurt’ is no longer his song. Cash captured everything he was attempting to in a way he never could have. ‘Hurt’ blew open the doors to Johnny Cash’s music in an especially bizarre way. The Man in Black covering Nine Inch Nails? On paper, it made no sense. In the studio, it was meant to be. It’s a heartbreaking song about devolving into depression. Cash’s aged voice captures its essence in a spine-tingling way. It’s a haunting final chapter to a great man’s legacy.
# 2 – ‘I Walk The Line’ – Single – 1956
In 1956, ‘I Walk The Line’ marked Johnny Cash’s first number one hit on the Billboard charts. It’s Cash’s ultimate ballad, and perhaps his most enduring song. It isn’t just a catchy ballad with legendary lyrics, though. It’s a compositional masterpiece. ‘I Walk The Line’ was inspired by Cash playing with reversing guitar sections on an old tape recorder, which is why the song has such a unique chord progression. In fact, Cash even jumps around different keys in the song, hence his need to hum along in order to find his pitch.
When you compare ‘I Walk The Line’ and the depth of its composition to its popular counterparts in 1956, the vast distance between them is historical. ‘I Walk The Line’ took ‘Cry, Cry, Cry’ and ‘Get Rhythm’ and amplified them with genius songwriting tactics. At the same time, Cash also embraced the level of brevity in his performance that he had on his singles before the song and then after it. There are a variety of re-recordings of ‘I Walk The Line’ throughout his career – both live and in the studio. Find the original Sun Records release – that’s where the magic was founded.
# 1 – ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ – Single – 1955
‘Folsom Prison Blues’ was one of Johnny Cash’s first songs, released via Sun in 1955. The song started Cash’s aforementioned love affair with the traditional prison song. With lines like, “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die,” ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ is a Johnny Cash song that only he could have written. It is a perfect song – every verse is tactful and meaningful, and they each take the listener through Cash’s prison-related musings about one day getting free and getting far away from the bars that imprisoned him.
Needless to say, the 1955 release is not the best version of this song. The best rendition of ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ was recorded at, of course, Folsom Prison. It was the fifth song Cash performed at the prison in 1968 while recording his live album, and it may be one of the best cuts on the record. The banter with the prisoners absolutely electrifies the song, and Cash’s backing band were in the finest form of their career. The searing electric guitar and echoes of inmate cheers make ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ completely at home at its namesake. It’s the ultimate Johnny Cash song.