Remembering Johnny Cash’s Songs from Sad to Silly

Johnny Cash’s songs covered the full range of human emotions from heartbreak to silliness. Cash could sing with equal conviction about the true story of a Native American veteran betrayed by his country (“The Ballad of Ira Hayes”) and the made-up story about a factory worker on a Cadillac assembly line stealing car parts in his lunchbox to assemble Franken-Caddy (“One Piece at a Time”).

Cash was born in rural Kingsland, Arkansas in 1932 – cotton picking country. He died an American cultural icon – the Man in Black – in 2003 in Nashville, Tennessee. In between, Johnny Cash’s songs touched tens of millions of people leaving an enduing musical legacy.

I’ve been listening to Johnny Cash’s songs since the 1980s, the hits, the covers, the originals, the deep tracks; let me help you remember that one Johnny Cash’s Song about…

Johnny Cash’s Song

Johnny Cash recorded and performed hundreds of songs. His initial musical influences included gospel, Christian worship songs, early rock and roll and early country music, especially the Carter Family – of which his future wife June Carter was a member.

As he aged, and his late recordings in the 1990s and early 2000s with rock music producer Rick Rubin (Beastie Boys, Run-D.M.C, Tom Petty, Slayer, Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Cult) bear this out, he continued finding new influences including hard rock. These later “American Recordings,” so named for Rubin’s record label on which they were released, introduced Cash to new generations of fans, probed the depths of human feeling, stunned the music world for their for their originality and vulnerability (“Hurt”), and shamed country music radio for turning its back on the icon, a clear example of agism.

You won’t hear many – any? – of Johnny Cash’s song on country music radio to this day despite their genius and his status. I guess they’re “too country.” That’s a long story. Johnny Cash’s songs haven’t been heard on mainstream country radio with any regularity since the mid to late 1980s.

You won’t have any trouble finding more information about Johnny Cash’s life, I want to help you remember your favorites of Johnny Cash’s songs.

What is Johnny Cash’s most famous song?

When thinking about what is Johnny Cash’s most famous song, I think it comes down to three choices: “Ring of Fire,” “I Walk the Line” and “Folsom Prison Blues.”

“Ring of Fire” is well-known for its use of trumpets, most unusual for country music, and ultra-memorable opening line, “Love, is a burning thing; and it makes, a fiery ring,” and equally unforgettable chorus:

“I fell in to a burning ring of fire

I went down, down, down and the flames went higher

And it burns, burns, burns

That ring of fire, that ring of fire.”

“I Walk the Line,” begins with the iconic “boom, chicka” bass and snare drum sound of his backing band, the Tennessee Two, later the Tennessee Three, recalling Reese Witherspoon’s line as June Carter from the “I Walk the Line” biopic, “steady like a train, sharp like a razor.”

Again, an iconic opening line, “I keep a close watch on this heart of mine,” but “I Walk the Line” doesn’t even have a chorus. The opening stanza is simply repeated as the closing verse. Two of the defining attributes of a Johnny Cash’s song are simplicity and brevity. Many of his songs aren’t even three minutes long.

“Folsom Prison Blues” and the live album he recorded there helped establish Cash, rightfully, as an advocate for social justice. Wrongly, the authenticity with which he performed the song convinced many that he’d done prison time. Nope. That would be Merle Haggard.

The song opens with Cash’s famous introduction, “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.”

“I hear the train a rollin,’ it’s comin’ round the bend, and I ain’t seen the sunshine since, I don’t know when, I’m stuck in Folsom Prison, and time keeps draggin’ on.”

“I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.”

“Suey!”

All from “Folsom Prison Blues.”

A lot of Johnny Cash’s songs are big hits, he’s won dozens of GRAMMY Awards, we each have our own favorites, but these are the most famous of Johnny Cash’s songs.

Johnny Cash Song Ring of Fire

Johnny Cash’s position as country music’s leading star in the late 1950s had waned by the early ’60s due, in part, to his amphetamine addition and abuse of other drugs and alcohol. It would be June Carter, then married to one of Cash’s buddies, who would bring him back to the top of the charts.

In 1962, she co-wrote “Ring of Fire,” a song about passion and its ability to consume a person.

Legend has it the horn players came to Cash in a dream.

True or not, the Johnny Cash song Ring of Fire went to Number 1 for seven weeks on the country charts and crossed over as a Top 20 pop hit.

Johnny Cash Song Walk the Line

How’s this for a double shot? In 1956, “Folsom Prison Blues” and the Johnny Cash Song Walk the Line were released back-to-back, “I Walk the Line” topping the country charts for six weeks and reaching the Pop Top 20.

Did Johnny Cash write songs?

Heck yeah, Johnny Cash wrote songs!

He wrote “Folsom Prison Blues,” he wrote “Man in Black,” “I Got Stripes,” “Get Rhythm” and “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town,” to name a few.

While Cash was happy to record songs written by others, including his future wife June, and had numerous hits with songs he didn’t author, and covered a lot of songs, he was an accomplished songwriter himself.

Cash even wrote songs with June including “Little at a Time” and “My Old Faded Rose.”

“Jacob Green” is another song Cash wrote highlighting the inhumanity of America’s carceral system:

“At the jail they took away his clothes to shame him

And to make sure Jacob Green had no pride left

They cut of all his hair today they found him hanging there

Afraid to face the day he killed himself.”

Johnny Cash Song Man in Black

The Johnny Cash song Man in Black explains why Cash chose to dress the way he did, always wearing black. Don’t tell anyone, but it’s a protest song.

“I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,

Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town,

I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,

But is there because he’s a victim of the times.”

The Johnny Cash song Man in Black advocates for the unhoused, the poor. It calls attention to America’s outrageous epidemic of mass incarceration and the cruelty of “mandatory minimum” sentencing.

This was in 1971! Themes still fiercely fought over in the nation today.

It’s unabashedly anti-war:

“I wear the black in mournin’ for the lives that could have been,

Each week we lose a hundred fine young men.”

This was the peak of the Vietnam War.

Cash wasn’t a folk singer and he was proud to be an American, but that never stopped him from calling out the many injustices he saw across the nation he loved.

Cash had a rare quality: empathy. That’s why he could sing and write so convincingly about the experiences of other people, experiences he didn’t share personally.

Johnny Cash song with June Carter

What Johnny Cash song with June Carter? There were a number of them.

Cash and Carter recorded Bob Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me Babe,” made famous by Sonny & Cher. “If I Were a Carpenter.” Pal Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make it Through the Night.”

There’s an entire album of Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash duets – a couple, actually.

But I’m guessing those aren’t the ones you’re thinking of…

Johnny Cash song Jackson

The Johnny Cash song Jackson, performed riotously along with June, features the two trash-talk each other lyrically as they portray a feuding couple ready to leave the other behind for good times in the “big” city of Jackson, Mississippi.

Another brilliant opening line from the 1963 ripper:

“We got married in a fever, hotter than a pepper sprout.”

Johnny:

“When I breeze into that city, people gonna stoop and bow. (June: Hah!)

All them women gonna make me, teach ’em what they don’t know how”

June:

“But they’ll laugh at you in Jackson, and I’ll be dancin’ on a Pony Keg.

They’ll lead you ’round town like a scalded hound,

With your tail tucked between your legs.”

Johnny Cash Song About a Car

The Johnny Cash song about a car is “One Piece at a Time.” The 1976 single was the last of his recordings to reach Number 1 on the country charts and the last of his to cross over into the Billboard Top 100 for pop songs.

Think about that. He go on to record powerful, beautiful, memorable songs for another full 25-years, but the music “business,” “radio,” wasn’t interested. That says a lot more about the industry than it does Cash.

Johnny Cash Song About Car Parts

Yeah, the Johnny Cash song about car parts, “One Piece at a Time,” has Cash taking the place of an assembly line worker who figures General Motors wouldn’t miss a few parts here and there, spread out over many years. He takes home smaller parts in his lunchbox and, “the big stuff we snuck out in my buddy’s mobile home.”

Unlike most contemporary country music which is corny or misogynistic or just stupid in its attempts to be funny, this song actually is funny.

“Now the headlight’ was another sight

We had two on the left and one on the right

But when we pulled out the switch all three of ’em come on.”

The gag comes from Cash’s protagonist failing to account for how the models and designs would evolve over the many years of pilfering parts out of the factory, that’s why he ends up with a car possessing only one tailfin and:

“up there at the court house they didn’t laugh

‘Cause to type it up it took the whole staff

And when they got through the title weighed sixty pounds.”

Johnny Cash song Cadillac

Cash’s General Motors assembly line worker was putting together Cadillacs. The main character, “always wanted me one that was long and black.”

Unable to afford the Caddy on his salary, he decides to build his own from parts taken out of the factory over his time working there:

“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.”

Ultimately, the man is successful and enjoys all the attention he receives rolling through town in his “Psycho-Billy Cadillac!”

Johnny Cash Sad Song

The aforementioned “Ballad of Ira Hayes” is about as sad as any song you’ll hear, but I’m guessing you’re looking for a romantically sad song.

Give me “I Still Miss Someone” for the best Johnny Cash sad song.

“I never got over those blue eyes

I see them everywhere.”

Classic, straightforward, “we broke up and I can’t get over you” material. Cash co-wrote “I Still Miss Someone.”

This song appeared on 1959’s “The Fabulous Johnny Cash” album which also featured “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town,”another heart wrenching ballad, but for a totally different reason.

In this classic Western story song, a young man feels the need to test himself in “town.” His mother doesn’t like the idea and she damn sure doesn’t want him to “take his guns to town.” A sense of foreboding throughout, he does take his guns to town, despite his mother’s pleading, and ends up on the wrong side of a shootout.

His version of Lefty Frizzell’s “Long Black Veil” will rip your heart from your chest.

Johnny Cash Song I’ve Been Everywhere

“I’ve Been Everywhere” is the one of Johnny Cash’s songs where he names all the cities. The song was first popularized in 1962 by country legend Hank Snow, reaching the top of the country charts.

Cash didn’t release his version until 1996. It was used in TV commercials for both Citgo gas stations and Choice Hotels.

The song lists 92 locations from small towns (Opelika, AL) to big cities (Chicago). Someone actually visited them all in homage.

Johnny Cash Song My Name is Sue

Technically titled “A Boy Named Sue,” this song was recorded by Cash live at San Quentin Prison in 1969, that’s why you hear the whoopin’ and hollerin’ in the background when Cash sings, “My name is Sue, how do you do? Now You’re gonna’ die!”

The protagonist here was given the name “Sue” by his father who knew he was going to leave the family. He gave his son that name because he knew, “he’d have to get tough or die” and being “A Boy Named Sue” would force him to get tough quick.

The song was written by Shell Silverstein, who you may know for his children’s books Where the Sidewalk Ends, The Giving Tree and A Light in the Attic.

Surprisingly, of all the amazing Johnny Cash’s songs, this one was the most successful on the Pop charts, reaching Number 2 for three weeks in 1969.

This was the middle song of an amazing Cash trilogy of consecutive single releases which began with “Daddy Sang Bass,” Sue, and concluded with “Get Rhythm.”

From the opening verse:

“My daddy left home when I was three

And he didn’t leave much to ma and me

Just this old guitar and an empty bottle of booze,”

Through the protagonist’s ultimate confrontation with his old man, “Kicking and a’ gouging in the mud and the blood and the beer,” to their reconciliation, this is lyrical genius delivered as only Cash could. Johnny Cash’s songs have been endlessly covered by other artists, I can’t recall ever hearing a cover of this one.

Johnny Cash Song When the Man Comes Around

You probably know the Johnny Cash song When the Man Comes Around from the X-Men movie “Logan.”

Cash’s cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” is used for the 2017 movie’s official trailer and “When the Man Comes Around” plays over the movie’s closing credits.

Johnny Cash Song Sunday Morning Coming Down

Achingly melancholic and brilliantly poetic, “The beer I had for breakfast wasn’t bad so I had one more for dessert,” this Johnny Cash’s song follows a man wandering about on a Sunday morning following a hard Saturday night of partying. No wife or girlfriend, no kids, no family, nothing to do, he’s longing for something in his life to hold onto, something to ground him, give him meaning, nostalgic for home and youth.

These are the sights (“a daddy with a laughing little girl that he was swinging”), smells “(someone frying chicken”) and sounds (“stopped beside a Sunday school to listen to the songs that they were singing”) he runs across through the song written by fellow Highwaymen member Kris Kristofferson. First recorded by Ray Stevens in 1969, Cash took it to the top of the country charts in 1970.

Kristofferson credits “Sunday Morning Coming Down” for launching his music career.

“Wishing lord that I was stoned” was a controversial lyric back in the days when America wanted people to believe smoking marijuana was dangerous. Cash performed the song on his nationally televised TV show and the network wanted him to replace “stoned.” He did not.

How Johnny Cash Die

Johnny Cash had been battling health problems for years before succumbing to respiratory failure complicated by diabetes on September 12, 2003. He was “only” 71, but looked 20 years older. The shocking “Hurt” video from 2002 revealed this.

June had died about five months before.

Johnny Cash is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – one of the first country singers inducted – Country Music Hall of Fame, Gospel Music Hall of Fame, Memphis Music Hall of Fame, Rockabilly Hall of Fame, Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame, National Broadcasters Hall of Fame and Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.

For a cross-section of Johnny Cash’s songs from old to new, happy to sad, serious to silly, I recommend the three-disc “Love, God, Murder” set.

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