Johnny Cash’s songbook is one of American idealisms, detailing sorrow, grief, addiction and romance. Over the course of five decades, he transformed country and pop music with his sharp penmanship and astute covers of his peers’ work. His countless studio records, ranging from I Walk the Line and Silver to At Folsom Prison, Bitter Tears and Ride This Train, he defined what it meant to be an outlaw ⎯⎯ literally walking the stylistic line between country, folk, rock and pop. He lived by no one’s rules but his own, and that’s what led to his legacy career.
Below, we take a look at Cash’s 10 most memorable songs.
10 Best Songs From Johnny Cash:
10. “Ring of Fire”
Cash took a creative swerve by adding in mariachi-style horn blasts to the arrangement. The tune, first recorded by Anita Carter on her 1963 album Folk Songs Old and New, contains a dark edge, likening romance to “burns, burns, burns” of a fiery hell. There have long been discrepancies about who actually wrote the song. June Carter Cash maintained for years she had a hand in co-writing the song, but Cash’s first wife Vivian Liberto shot down those claims, stating in her book I Walk the Line that Cash penned it alone. Regardless of the originator, Cash’s performance (appearing on his Ring of Fire: The Best of Johnny Cash disc) is enveloping.
9. “Sunday Morning Coming Down
The Kris Kristofferson original, also recorded by Ray Stevens, finds the universality of a drifter’s heart the tie that binds us all. The live performance was filmed as part of The Johnny Cash Show at the Ryman Auditorium, forever capturing the bellowing, rough-hewn textures of his vocals and anchored with the downcast spirit of the Great Depression, which is actually not inherently tied to a specific time and place. The weight of everyday living is deceivingly embedded in a rather shimmering melody. Cash’s rendition is found on the 1970 soundtrack, The Johnny Cash Show.
8. “I Walk the Line”
His first No. 1 hit on Billboard, Cash declares his unwavering devotion, as he was newly married at the time he wrote the song in 1956. The song appears numerous times on several different albums, including his 1964 album of the same name. From the tender gallop of percussion and the guitar’s haunting tone, the ode to love, originally intended to be a ballad, serves as one of his finest compositions.
7. “The Ballad of Ira Hayes”
Folk singer Peter La Farge wrote the song about Ira Hayes, a U.S. marine who was born into the Pima Tribe of Native Americans and became famous as one of several who raised the flag on Mount Suribachi during World World II. When the white man began settling the area in Arizona, the tribe was plunged into poverty. Hayes later enlisted in the Marines, but when he returned home, despite being honored with cheers and handshakes, his people rejected him. He then spiraled down into alcoholism and died alone in a ditch. Cash’s recording, lifted from his 1964 concept album Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian, mixes airy trumpet calls and a hazy-eyed guitar line.
6. “Delia’s Gone”
In a fit of murderous rage, the narrator ties Delia, who was “low down and trifling / and she was cold and mean,” to her parlor chair and shoots her. Other than breaking his heart, there is no other reason given for the slaying. “If your woman’s devilish, you can let her run / Or you can bring her down and do her like Delia got done,” he later ruminates in his jail cell. He seems to have no remorse whatsoever, which gives the song an even darker edge. The twisted, ghoulish tune is found on his 1962 album The Sound of Johnny Cash.
5. “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky”
Originally written and performed in 1948 by Stan Jones, this dark folk tale ⎯⎯ about a cowboy who has a vision of “red-eyed” cattle being chased by damned cowboys — has been recorded by more than 50 other performers. From Bing Cosby, Gene Autry and Peggy Lee to Marty Robbins, each version is an admirable attempt at capturing the song’s sinister narrative. But none quite matches the spirit of Cash’s haunting performance (from 1979’s Silver). Back by chilling piano and a swell of horns, the rendition sticks close to the original but adds a healthy dose of the dusty western flair.
4. “Daddy Sang Bass”
This 1968 single (penned by Carl Perkins, whose songs were also recorded by such acts as Elvis Presley, the Beatles and others) encapsulates his renewed faith in God and overcoming his addictions. Found on his 1969 album The Holy Land, the sweet ode contains lyrics from the classic hymn “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” (made famous by The Carter Family). “Now, little brother has done gone on / But i’ll rejoin him in a song / We’ll be together again up yonder in a little while,” he croons, honoring his brother who passed away when they were kids.
3. “Man in Black”
The title track to Cash’s 1971 studio album quickly became his nickname, a reflection of his onstage appearance of all-black attire, and essential to his legacy. The song serves as a protest against the treatment of poor people by rich politicians, the war in Vietnam and mass incarceration ⎯⎯ “I wear the black in mourning,” he weeps. He later admits, “I would love to wear a rainbow everyday / And tell the world that everything’s OK / But I’ll try to carry a little darkness on my back / Till things are brighter, I’m the man in black.”
2. “A Boy Named Sue”
Songwriter Shel Silverstein, also popular poet, cartoonist and children’s book author, certainly had a way with words. The song (appearing on 1969’s At San Quentin), which became Cash’s biggest hit on the Hot 100, depicts a young man’s crusade to get revenge on his father, who abandoned him at three-years-old. The only influence he had over the narrator is naming him Sue. “Life ain’t easy for a boy named Sue,” Cash smirked. When the boy tracks down his father to a tavern during the sweltering summer heat, a vicious brawl ensues. It is soon revealed, however, that his father gave the name Sue as an act of love, believing the ridicule would force the boy to become tough and mean.
1. “Folsom Prison Blues”
Borrowing from folk-style prison and train songs, he rolled out one of the most iconic lyrics in country history: “But I shot man in Reno just to watch him die.” The plucky, torturous toe-tapper was first recorded on his 1955 debut album, With His Hot and Blue Guitar. The same version was later included on 1962’s All Aboard the Blue Train (with a reissue coming in 2003). The song, detailing his murderous rampage, was reportedly inspired by the 1951 film-noir Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison, starring Steve Cochran and David Brian. He might never have actually killed someone, but he did spend one-off nights in jail for various misdemeanors throughout his life.