Johnny Cash was always more than just a country singer. He was an icon. In the ’50s and ’60s, he changed country music forever, writing songs with more honesty and humanity than anything else around at the time. Over the coming decades, his fortunes, both personal and professional, would experience peaks and troughs, but he never stopped performing, never stopped being a voice for the downtrodden, and never stopped blessing us with his music. In honor of the inimitable Man in Black, here are the 10 best Johnny Cash country songs of all time.
10. Flesh and Blood
Released in 1970, Flesh and Blood is a straightforward love song written two years into Johnny Cash’s marriage to June Carter. He’s clearly relishing the experience. With no artifice and no cliches, this is what every love song should sound like – raw, honest, and supremely listenable.
9. One Piece at a Time
By the late-1970s, Cash’s chart success had become hit and miss. His last number one of the decade was One Piece at a Time, a light, humorous number that tells the story of a car factory worker who manages to steal an entire Cadillac by smuggling it out, piece by piece, in his lunchbox. When he puts all the pieces together, the hodge-podge result is so unique he brags “I’m gonna ride around in style / I’m gonna drive everybody wild / ‘Cause I’ll have the only one there is around.”
8. Man In Black
As theboot.com writes, Cash’s preference for all-black clothing eventually became part of his legend, earning him the nickname “Man in Black.” In this 1971 top ten hit, he reveals the reason for his penchant, which, as you’d expect, has more to do with his social activism than his taste in fashion.
7. A Boy Named Sue
After hearing Shel Silverstein perform A Boy Named Sue, Cash decided to take the lyric sheet along with him to his 1969 performance at San Quentin. Despite never having sung the song before, he set the lyrics on the stand in front of him and proceeded to bring down the house. As mentalfloss.com writes, it’s been said by some that Cash could have inspired a riot that night with a word – listening to this electrifying performance, you can understand why.
6. Sunday Morning Coming Down
Legend has it that Kris Kristofferson landed his helicopter at Cash’s mansion to play him Sunday Morning Coming Down. It might not be true, but what is true is that Cash was one of the first people to recognize Kristofferson’s talents when he turned up in Nashville as a penniless singer-songwriter. What’s also true is that he did this, one of Kristofferson’s finest compositions, justice, imbuing it with a weariness that matches the song’s lyrics perfectly. Released as a single in 1970, it became Cash’s 11th No.1.
Cash first began singing with June Carter in 1961, at a time when they were both married to other people. When Jackson was recorded in 1967, their relationship had just turned romantic. Their vocal sparring is a joy, with each bouncing off the other like an old married couple. A year later, they were married, and they stayed that way until June passed away in 2003. Cash followed her just 4 months later.
When Cash released his cover of Hurt by Nine Inch Nails in 2002, it got hardly any airplay. Chart-wise, it barely made a dent. And then music channels started playing the video. Constantly. Made just months before Cash’s death, it puts his fragility on full display. Clearly weak and suffering from ill health, Cash looks like a man far older than his 71 years. He sounds it too. And that’s what makes it so powerful. Had he recorded it 40 years previously, it might have sounded gimmicky. Sung at the end of his life with a vulnerability that tears at every fiber of your being, the lyrics take on a completely fresh meaning. After hearing Cash’s interpretation, Trent Reznor went so far as to say “that song isn’t mine anymore.” He wasn’t wrong.
3. Folsom Prison Blues
As Billboard writes, image can sometimes be stronger than the truth. Throughout much of his early career, Cash propagated the image of someone who’d seen time. He hadn’t – sure, he’d got arrested a few times, but his punishment began and ended with a slap on the wrist. But when he sang Folsom Prison Blues during a live show at Folsom, it wasn’t from the perspective of someone who had empathy for the inmates. It was from the perspective of someone who’d once been one. When he sang “But I shot man in Reno just to watch him die,” you got the feeling he actually had. From the whoops and cheers of the crowd, you’d think they felt the same. The fact those whoops and cheers were added during post-production is neither here nor there.
2. Ring Of Fire
Written by June Carter about her feelings about getting involved with Cash while both she and he were involved with other people, Ring of Fire was originally intended as an acoustic folk song. After Cash got his hands on it, he upped the tempo, added some Mariachi-style horns, a trumpet fanfare and proceeded to record one of the most memorable and enduring songs in country music history. Following both June and Johnny’s deaths, Merle Kilgore, who shared co-writing credits with June on the song, proposed licensing it for use in a Preparation H commercial Fortunately, June’s heirs had different thoughts and promptly nixed the idea.
1. I Walk The Line
Johnny Cash always knew what to do with a love song, even before he met June Carter. Written for his first wife Vivian Liberto, I Walk The Line is Cash’s most powerful and iconic song. Its stark rhythms, its hound dog romanticism, its key changes, and above all, Cash’s godlike baritone – it’s majestic. The irony, of course, is that at the time of recording the song, Cash was doing everything but walk the line. He was popping pills and falling for the charms of another woman. Does it matter? Not even slightly, It inspired two movies, earned a place in the Grammy Song Hall of Fame, and changed the fabric of country music forever. It’s Cash’s finest moment… and, for any right-thinking music lover, country’s.