Johnny Cash

TrackSingle / Album
Sun and Boom Chicka Boom
I Walk The LineSun 241
There You GoSun 258
Home Of The BluesSun 279
Give My Love To RoseSun 279
Ballad Of A Teenage QueenSun 283
Big RiverSun 283
Guess Things Happen That WaySun 295
The Ways Of A Woman In LoveSun 302
Thanks A LotSun 315
Folsom Prison Blues (live)Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison
Columbia and After
I Still Miss SomeoneColumbia 4-41313
Five Feet High And RisingColumbia 4-41427
Going To MemphisColumbia 4-41804
Tennessee Flat-Top BoxColumbia 4-42147
Ring Of FireColumbia 4-42788
The Ballad Of Ira HayesColumbia 4-43058
It Ain't Me BabeColumbia 4-43145
Orange Blossom SpecialColumbia 4-43206
I See A DarknessAmerican III: Solitary Man
The Man Comes AroundAmerican IV: The Man Comes Around




Johnny Cash photo 2



Contributor: Dave Stephens

Because you’re mine
I walk the line

Writing recently I compared certain records to Easter Island monoliths, thinking things like strength, durability, impact and probably more. But when you put monoliths and pop discs in the same sentence it’s very hard to ignore I Walk The Line. It might not have seemed so massive to the typical UK record buyer at the time, and it didn’t make our charts, but to kids like myself listening to a Radio Luxembourg signal which required retuning every so often, it was something quirky enough to stand out against the backdrop of early 1957 UK output which still contained insufficient rock and roll for my liking –the record that was topping the UK Chart when I Walk The Line saw release here via trusty London Records was Frankie Vaughan’s Garden Of Eden. Sorry Frank but you don’t compare.

London Records were being cautious. The whole business of putting faith (and money) into US independent labels and their releases was still in its relatively early days and had associated risk. If I can believe the dates in 45cat (and they’re usually reliable), there was a whopping nine month delay between US and UK release. In that time the original Sun single had hit the number one spot in the Billboard Country Chart and had broken into the US Pop Top Twenty reaching number 17. That might not seem overly impressive but to the then tiny Sun Records this was only their second record to achieve crossover. The first had been Carl Perkins with Blue Suede Shoes only a month or so before. And in spite of the brilliance of the Presley Sun singles, it took the move to RCA to propel the Pelvis into the National Pop Chart.

So much for the statistics, what about the music?

An unadorned guitar playing single bass strings is the first thing you hear followed immediately by a rhythm guitar – Cash himself – plus underlying bass. Having stated the theme, the lead then settles into a rhythm and there are four bars of Cash humming before he starts on the lyrics. The vocal is well up in the mix and the whole thing is both in-your-face, stark even, and minimalist. We’ve learned subsequently that Johnny’s guitar had paper inserted between the strings resulting in a flattening of the usual ringing sound of chord strumming; the intention, apparently was to make the guitar take on the role of snare drum. A further feature was the switching of key between verses, signalled by the lead guitar – Luther Perkins – followed by Johnny’s humming which was apparently to ensure that he came in on the right note for the verse.

The story of how Johnny came up with the song is told in the excellent 706 Union Avenue, a site devoted to Sun Records and everything associated with them. Johnny was in the US Air Force at the time and discovered that someone had been messing with his tape recorder. He rewound the tape and pressed ‘play’. Then, in his words:

“Here was one of the strangest sounds I’d ever heard. At the beginning it sounded like a voice saying, “Father”. It drove me crazy for about a year. I asked everybody I knew if they had fooled around with my tape recorder. I finally found who did it. He put the tape on upside down and backward. All he was doing was strumming chords on the guitar, and at the end he said, “Turn it off”, which sounds like “Father”’ when it’s backward. I never got that chord progression out of my mind. It broke all the musical laws but I couldn’t forget it. After I started touring, I was playing Gladewater, Texas, one night and Carl Perkins asked me, “What are you doing?”. I was fooling around with those chords. He said, “That’s really different. Sam is always looking for something different. Why don’t you write a song and use that progression?”. Then a little bit later on we got to talking about our wives and guys running around on the road and so forth. I had a brand new baby and I said, “Not me, buddy. I walk the line”. Carl said, “There’s your song title”. I wrote it all that night in fifteen or twenty minutes.”

Great story and even better record. And it was single #3 from Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two.

Single number two, Folsom Prison Blues, might have overtaken I Walk The Line in the popularity stakes these days. It made #4 in the Country Chart at the time but received a massive boost in acclaim after its appearance in the Folsom Prison concert in 1968. In addition to the LP, a single was released of the live cut which made #32 in the US Pop Chart. I agonised for ages as to which version to pick but eventually went for the second one, purely because of that opening line, “Hello I’m Johnny Cash”. I’m a sentimental old sod. In other respects, while it was slicker, it stuck very closely to the original arrangement and sound. The boom chicka boom was intact.

Do I hear someone asking what? Is there someone reading this who’s not heard of “boom chicka boom”? It was the sound that permeated almost all the trio’s Sun records and a number of the Columbia records, particularly the early ones. It was the creation of the three of them, Johnny, Luther and bass man Marshall Grant and it was pretty well the only thing they could play. Marshall had only just started learning how to play bass when the group was formed, and Luther was, well, Luther. His ability was limited in the Sun days – though he did improve over time – and things weren’t helped by his nervousness at the possibility of making mistakes in the studio. Which led to him making them of course. What is more important than the nature and rationale behind the primitive sound is the fact that Sam Phillips liked it. He saw it as authentic. What’s more, he saw it as a differentiator against virtually all other country music available at the time. His business brain didn’t dismiss the possibility that the rock‘n’roll thing could disappear overnight, after all, other music crazes had come and gone. But country, or country and western as it was termed at the time, had a rich history; a buying audience that was less resistant to music fads plus indications that that audience was growing. It was a sector that Phillips wanted into and Cash and that sound gave him an edge.

Back to the plot. Folsom Prison Blues originated in some creative ‘borrowing’ by Cash, which story is told in the footnotes. What was original was the setting. Johnny had watched the film Inside The Walls Of Folsom Prison which was reportedly the source of the song. That’s what Cash claims in 706 Union Avenue. Cash has also recounted how he came up with the line, “But I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die”. “I sat with my pen in my hand, trying to think up the worst reason a person could have for killing another person, and that’s what came to mind”.

John R. Cash was born in Kingsland, Arkansas on 26th February 1932 though the family moved to Dyess, Arkansas in 1935. He played guitar and wrote songs even as a young boy. His early life was steeped in gospel music though; reportedly he also listened to other forms of music including Irish traditional on the radio. In high school he sang for a local radio station. He did his national service in the US Air Force in Landsberg, Germany and returned to civilian life in July 1954. While in the air force he formed his first band. A month after his discharge, he married his first wife Vivian in San Antonio.

In 1954, Johnny and Vivian moved to Memphis, Tennessee. His brother Ray introduced him to a couple of mechanic friends, Luther Perkins and Marshall Grant. These were the gents, later to be known as the Tennessee Two, who started playing gigs with Cash around the city. Determined to break into the big time, Johnny and the boys joined the queue at the door of Sun Studios. Reportedly, Sam Phillips wasn’t totally convinced after the band’s first audition which mainly consisted of gospel material. This wasn’t antipathy towards gospel music on Sam’s part, merely a business judgement that the operation wasn’t geared up to produce and market the format. However, Johnny came back with more secular songs. There’s an album which came out in 2011 called Johnny Cash: The Bootleg Series Volume 2 which includes a number of demo tracks. These include both Rock ‘n’ Roll Ruby later to be recorded by Warren Smith (and, arguably, the latter’s trademark recording) and You’re My Baby, later to be recorded by Roy Orbison. Both are undoubtedly rockabilly and both were written by Cash. These may well have formed part of Johnny’s argument for being taken on at Sun. Present also in the 2011 set is an example of his gospel interest, the self-written Belshazzar complete with that same boom chicka boom sound that we heard on the later commercial releases.

His first single Cry, Cry, Cry coupled with Hey, Porter introduced the world, or least Memphis initially, to that music. Both were very good sides with hardly any reference points to other forms of music. Even from this distance with oodles of hindsight, it’s difficult to pin down the components. Folk, yes. Folk country maybe. Certainly not the forms of country that were currently popular, with fiddles or pedal steel. Rockabilly slightly perhaps, but that might be due to the Phillips echo. Pop, no but later Sun records, particularly from other writers, would demonstrate something more akin to chart awareness.

I guess it’s here that I have to declare an interest. I’m hopelessly in love with the Sun Johnny Cash. I remember buying a Cash Sun compilation which would have been from Charly/Snapper way back, at least twenty years ago, probably more. It was cheap and I didn’t have any Sun Cash. I only had Columbia Cash and that on vinyl plus some odd later stuff on tape. And this was when Cash was in the wilderness, way out of fashion and well before the Rubin years.

The Charly set was an absolute eye/ear opener. I knew the big tracks of course – the ones I’ve mentioned plus Big River, Get Rhythm and others not so well. At the time my main memories of Cash were of his 60s Columbia tracks. I had the feeling that the Sun material, which hadn`t been that heavily promoted in the 50s in the UK, was relatively primitive and limited instrumentally. I was partially right on the second point though that same basic guitar and bass sound actually continued well into his career. However on the first point I was totally wrong as the songs and sounds on the set clearly demonstrated. And it was the quality and range of songs which really got to me, many from Cash himself but with several excellent (and often little known) others.

Single #4 There You Go/Train Of Love is an excellent example. The A-side captured your attention with a descending phrase from JC which seemed to have escaped from the end of a verse – “You’re gonna break another heart, you’re gonna tell another lie”. To repeat a phrase that often gets used about records: it was an opening that made you want to lift the (virtual) needle and go back and hear it again. Nothing overtly dramatic here like either of my starting picks but quietly and melodically expressed agony. And spaces, great spaces. There was some highly economical work from Luther in the break but it was his fillers in the spaces that counted. And the words continued to be direct and highly expressive.

Another guy gives you the eye and there you go

The flip, Train Of Love, was arguably as good and it’s only numbers that have kept it out of the list. Once again, superb lyrics belying a title which might have suggested pop fluff.

Every so often everybody’s baby gets the urge to roam
But everybody’s baby but mine’s coming home

Cash laid down some songs about real trains as well. Wreck Of The Old 97 and Rock Island Line. And there was the self-penned Blue Train – “Gonna ride a blue train, gonna ride a blue train”. But reverting back to the topic of There You Go, it was the first of a small number of songs utilising sayings from everyday life. Writers Jack Clement and Charlie Rich picked up on the loose theme with Guess Things Happen That Way and Thanks A Lot respectively. The former almost squeaked into the national pop Top Ten; it gave Johnny his highest chart placing of all his Sun records just beating out Ballad Of A Teenage Queen. Guess Things Happen That Way was a pop song but a mighty good one with minimal if any concessions to a teen audience. Writer Jack Clement commented “I wasn’t thinking about Johnny Cash when I wrote “Guess Things Happen That Way”, I was thinking more like Dean Martin or somebody” (source: 706 Union Avenue). But Dino wouldn’t have had a barbershop quartet (called the Confederates) going ba-dooba-do featuring prominently in the mix. Clement was also nervous as to whether Cash would go for the song but lyrics like those below would have clinched it:

God gave me that girl to lean on,
then he put me on my own.
Heaven help me be a man
and have the strength to stand alone

In terms of filling out the Cash recordings, Jack Clement often used a pianist to add extra interest as on this one. A gent called Jimmy Wilson usually filled this role, but Charlie Rich was at the keyboard for some as was Jerry Lee Lewis in his early days at Sun (see Footnotes).

Thanks A Lot must have been one of the earliest Rich songs to get recorded though it didn’t see release till early 1959, well after the Cash move to Columbia. It featured one of those melodies which initially sounded simple until you were into the middle eight which went somewhere that you just weren’t expecting. Somewhat maudlin lyrics but production and sound that sat somewhere in that interesting hinterland between country and pop.

But I’m guilty of jumping ahead of myself. In the Cash Sun story, mid ’57 was significant for two reasons: the decision by JC to leave Sun after an approach by Don Law of Columbia in August (what, in football terms might have been seen as a hostile bid); plus the switch of production duties from Phillips to Clement. The two changes aren’t generally seen to be related and Jack, who had been operating as assistant to Sam, might well have assumed a higher level of authority prior to August of that year. Phillips apparently felt that Clement with his awareness of a wider musical range might improve on, or at least broaden, the overall sonic colouration of the Cash output. In less colourful words, he evidently felt that the minimalism of the early records might have reached its sell-by date.

From what I’ve been able to ascertain, there were three, or possibly four, reasons for Cash wanting to make the label move: he was after the fame that Elvis achieved in a relatively short time after his move to a “big” label; he was aggrieved at the low level of royalties he was getting from Sun (though one would have thought negotiation might have sorted this out); and he had a feeling that he was no longer the chosen one, or blue-eyed boy at Sun – instead Sam was giving all his attention to the new boy, Jerry Lee Lewis. Jack Clement has confirmed that Phillips was unable to really give his attention to more than one artist at a time. Billy Lee Riley, in particular, has always resented the attention that Lewis seemed to get. In addition to all this, either by diligent research or after dialogue with Cash, Columbia offered the bait of him being able to record a gospel album for them.

After the experience with Presley, Phillips managed to strike a better deal on behalf of Sun: Cash stayed till the end of his contract (August ’58), and Sun kept everything Cash recorded for the label. The last should have given Sam and Sun something of a financial cushion but unfortunately Mr Phillips was never that good with balance sheets. There was undoubtedly bad feeling which might in part have accounted for Phillips not wishing to be present at Cash sessions. For his part, Cash held back most new songs he was writing, with the aim of using them at his new label. While this restricted him to other people’s songs he didn’t hold back at all in terms of performance; this would have been against his ethos.

Home Of The Blues recorded on 1st July 1957, predated the blow-up between Johnny and Sam, but it was from the first session on which Clement was listed as producer. The number was penned by Cash but along with collaborators for the first time. While the song was metaphorical, it’s been stated (706 Union Avenue) that it was inspired by Johnny’s favourite record shop, “Home Of The Blues” at 105-107 Beale St., Memphis. It used to bill itself as “The South’s Largest Record Store”.

Just around the corner there’s heartache
Down the street that losers use
If you can wade in through the teardrops
You’ll find me at the Home of the Blues

The released track incorporated one of Clement’s early attempts at overdubbing with the inclusion of a second guitar, piano and backing vocal and it has to be said the results are somewhat muddy but in keeping with the dolorous nature of the song. The flip, Give My Love To Rose, doesn’t suffer from added extras and its stripped back setting is in line with the nature of the lyrics. It’s another prison song and one that would frequently appear in Cash’s stage show. Most notably it was present in the Folsom Prison concert in ’68.

The post August ’57 period didn’t see a decline in quality of Cash’s output. I’ve covered a couple of excellent records from this time frame, Guess Things Happen This Way and Thanks A Lot. Others included another double sided goodie released as the follow-up to Home Of The Blues/Give My Love To Rose. The tracks were Ballad Of A Teenage Queen and Big River. Once again the sides were very different. The A-side, penned by Jack Clement, has come in for some stick both for the concept of a singer of Cash’s gravitas delivering such a teen pop concoction plus the OTT nature of the added ornamentation viz. another barbershop quartet plus a lady who Jack Clement described as a church singer. The folk at 706 Union Avenue refer to “Teenage Queen” as “… arguably the worst song Johnny Cash cut at Sun”. An interesting thing they do tell us though is that Luther Perkins sat out the session and Clement himself played guitar. This was what it sounded like:

Yup, this was teen pop but pretty damn good teen pop with a neat country rock thing going on in the rhythm section. If anything it was something like the guy with glasses over in Lubbock who’d released Peggy Sue only a few weeks earlier (though even Buddy hadn’t dreamed up the idea of a soprano providing counterpoint to the lead singer). A much later version of the song from one-time Cash son-in-law Rodney Crowell reinforces the country rock connection. And there’s a link to Holly in that the latter’s Love’s Made A Fool Of You very largely shares the melody line. There’s also a different connection altogether: the rhythm isn’t unlike a more somnolent version of the Diddley “shave-and-a-haircut, two-bits”.

Luther was back for the flip which was a Cash song that he did agree to record. No embellishment this time other than Clement again with his acoustic guitar adding extra meat to that kicking beat. And you knew from the opening couplet that these lyrics were going to be among his best. They were. Big River was another monolith:

Now I taught the weeping willow how to cry, cry, cry
And I showed the clouds how to cover up a clear blue sky
And the tears that I cried for that woman are gonna flood you Big River
Then I’m gonna sit right here until I die

Daughter Rosanne said this about the song, “I think my dad’s ‘Big River’ is one of the most eloquent pieces of American poetry ever written. It is so layered and cinematic.”

And Tom Petty whose band backed Johnny on some of the American Series tracks, put it more strongly, “You want to be a songwriter? Listen to ‘Big River’ about 60 times, and you’ll write something.”

I’ve one more selection from the Sun years though there could have been others; Don’t Make Me Go, I Just Thought You’d Like To Know, Mean Eyed Cat and his take on Charlie Feathers, I Forgot To Remember To Forget haven’t even had a mention. I think that The Ways Of A Woman In Love was the last release to be made by Sun while Cash was still officially contracted to the label. If not, the date was very close. The song was another from Charlie Rich and melodically it could have been another Dino piece of confectionary. However, being Charlie there was a sting in the lyrics: the guy she was in love with was someone else. There was a demo made by Charlie of the song – it appears on The Complete Sun Masters Box Set – but no one has uploaded it to YouTube. However, there is a later cut from Charlie’s Groove label period. I’m with Johnny on this one though. By the time this track was recorded, Jack Clement had got the art of overdubbing down to a T and the results sounded much more naturalistic.


I may have left Johnny’s Sun phase rather abruptly but there was nothing like such abruptness felt by the Cash listener at the time. Initially, the sonic difference didn’t manifest itself at all strongly. In part this was due to the fact that the Sun releases continued for several years – Phillips had managed to get a lot stashed away in the can – and, an extra confusion could have been that Columbia were quick off the mark in recording an LP (with most tracks differing only in a minimal way from the Sun records) which they drip-fed as EPs to tempt singles buyers throughout 1958, so the average buyer might not have even noticed the change.

But in addition to all that the early Columbia singles were more of a refinement of that Sun sound than something new. The second single, in particular, was something of a triumph. The A-side, Don’t Take Your Guns To Town, was the one that attracted the buyers and deservedly so. It was a story song which very much played to Cash’s lyrical strengths. Couple that with an attractive melody and a western theme and there was no surprise when it hit the number one spot in the Country Chart. Over time, however, it’s the flip, I Still Miss Someone, that has gradually picked up more plaudits. A mid-tempo teary ballad but song, performance and arrangement were just perfect. Luther was still to the fore and backing singers were present but with markedly more subtlety than on some of the Sun Clement singles.

At my door the leaves are falling
A cold wild wind will come
Sweethearts walk by together
And I still miss someone

Another gauge of the quality of the song is the number of people who’ve chosen to cover it who, in this case, include Willie Nelson, Flatt & Scruggs, Stevie Nicks, Leo Kottke and Joan Baez. But I’d single out the Gram Parsons driven International Submarine Band and the Nanci Griffith take with assistance from Rodney Crowell as being particularly worthy of attention.

Experimentation was bound to occur at some stage at Columbia and 1960’s Going To Memphis is a good example of something a little bit different being tried. The song was one of those collected by musicologist Alan Lomax and can be traced to Parchman Farm, Mississippi. It’s classified alternately as prison song or work song. The lyrics talk about prisoners getting parole and going to Memphis to celebrate. Cash not only contributed new lyrics, he also arranged the song with dialogue and background effects indicative of chain gang working. It was theatrical, yes, but elements of drama had already cropped up in Cash performances and probably could be traced back to his love for gospel songs with fire and brimstone not an unusual topic. Manufactured or not, to these ears it’s more evocative of those conditions than Sam Cooke’s overtly poppy Chain Gang released the same year.


Columbia evidently felt that Johnny could be marketed as something of a folk cum social consciousness artist with albums like Songs Of Our Soil, Ride This Train, Blood, Sweat And Tears and Bitter Tears: Ballads Of The American Indian. They contained a mix of Cash’s own songs, trad arrs., and some from other writers but all thematically related. Significant singles that got extracted from those albums included Five Feet High And Rising and The Ballad Of Ira Hayes. The first was written by Cash himself and could well have been one of those songs that he salted away at Sun since its release was as early as ’59. The song describes the increasing effect of a Mississippi river flood and it has been said that it arose from an actual autobiographical event. It could be seen as a deliberate attempt to add to that motherlode of American country folk songs like Delia’s Gone and Long Black Veil. If it was, let’s just say that it was mighty effective and a song that was made for live performance. And it cropped up again on the 1969 Madison Square Garden live album. The song focuses on a dialogue between a child and his/her parents – “How high’s the water mama. Two feet high and rising” – with a rise in key between each verse helping to denote the rise in water level. My clip is from a TV show from, I think, the early sixties:

The Ballad Of Ira Hayes came from Bitter Tears and it was one of five songs in that set composed by the now largely forgotten folk artist Peter La Farge (for more on Peter see Footnotes). The song tells the story of Ira Hayes, an American Indian from the Pima Tribe, who joined the U.S. Marines and participated in the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima. He was one of those soldiers who were depicted on the famous memorial statue. On return to civilian existence Hayes faced hostility even from his own people. To quote Wiki who provide a more detailed description of the song and its background, “Ira descends into alcoholism and dies drunk in a ditch”. The number has been covered many times but the Cash version is the most celebrated. With no disrespect to La Farge, the Cash voice was more suited to the recitation mode than that of its writer.

Lest anyone think that all of Columbia’s energies on Cash were expended on high cultural activity I should dispel that notion. The hits eased off quite a bit after the move from Sun to Columbia and by ’63 the company was so desperate to get back into the charts that it gave Cash his head on a pretty crazy notion. Johnny had his focus firmly on a song written by June Carter – who he would marry in ’68 – and country singer/songwriter Merle Kilgore. The song was Ring Of Fire (sometimes referred to as Love’s Ring Of Fire) and a version had been recorded by June’s sister, Anita. Johnny, it is reported, had had a dream wherein he heard the song accompanied by Mexican horns (that came from Wiki; for a direct quote on that dream see Footnotes). It is also reported that he said he’d give the record about five or six months and if it didn’t hit the charts he’d record it his way. He did, and the result couldn’t have been more different than the original if Jack Clement had been let loose with his Sun overdubbing approach. Jack could even have been on it. He left Sun early in 1959 and among other things he did over the next few years was sit in on Columbia Cash sessions. He wasn’t on this one, though, but Anita was, as a member of the Carter Family including mother Maybelle, who provided back-up vocals. The horns remain as incongruous/silly/lovable to this day but there’s no doubt they’re striking. Record buyers were certainly struck at the time since the single restored Cash to the top of the Country Chart and achieved crossover to the Pop Top Twenty.

And those mariachi horns stayed in Johnny’s brain. They were utilised again for his take on Dylan’s It Ain’t Me Babe, in a performance that differed drastically from the majority of Bob covers that had previously seen release. Such covers had tended towards the soporific, sanding down the rougher edges of the original vocal. JC did the opposite, acting out the lyrics in a manner that was at once OTT, brave, and, for me at least, captivating. The sheer effrontery still takes one’s breath away.

His theatrical flair came to the fore again in the two prison concerts in ’68 and ’69. Both albums are classics, with the first in particular giving a fresh lease of life to several of his older songs, plus traditional but relevant numbers like Long Black Veil. The second, the San Quentin set, gave him the opportunity to unveil a new song created for the show. Cash’s request prior to starting the song sets the tone:

Any of the guards are still speaking to me, can I have a glass of water

San Quentin may you rot and burn in hell
May your walls fall down and may I live to tell

It was no surprise that he was called upon by the audience to reprise the song in its entirety.

On performances like the last few, the larger than live image of Cash, the Man In Black as he got termed, got close to tipping over into pastiche both on record and in live performance, but there were plenty of other numbers on which his relationship to his roots was expressed in a quieter manner. Tennessee Flat-Top Box from way back in 1961, is one such. One inspiration for the “little dark haired boy who played the Tennessee flat top box” might have been Chuck Berry’s Johnny B Goode, about the country boy who “could play a guitar just like ringing a bell”. While Cash doesn’t use the words “country boy” in his lyrics, they do seem to be implied. But it’s just as possible that the format with guitar to the fore interludes could have come from another song entirely, the Flatt & Scruggs number When Papa Played The Dobro which Johnny had recorded on the album Ride That Train in 1960. A late but wholly delightful cover of Tennessee Flat-Top Box was recorded by Johnny’s daughter Rosanne in 1987 on her album King’s Record Store. Here is a clip of Rosanne singing the song at the Cash Memorial Tribute with an excellent opening speech.

With the back beat and the rhythm driving the paradoxes

OK he wasn’t from South Texas but that song seemed to suit him somehow.

I’ve one more from the Columbia days. It’s another that demonstrated his love to play, only this time what he was playing was a harmonica. Orange Blossom Special. I saw Johnny just the once and that was at the Royal Albert Hall on 9th May 1968. He had his new wife June with him plus, as bonus, rockabilly pioneer Carl Perkins. I was seated very close to the stage in that bank of seats they sometimes use behind it, so got a very close view even if it was mainly backsides. With no disrespect to the great Carl, it was Johnny’s show. The one number that really stuck in my mind was Orange Blossom Special. And it was powerful and Johnny cavorted, if that’s the right word, but a great contrast to the usual near motionless stance. I’d owned that track for a year or two but it had never struck me as great until then. The number was originally a fiddle speciality written in 1938 by Ervin Rouse and recorded by him and his brother Gordon in 1939. This is a 1945 recut of the song from the brothers. It was something special even then but Johnny brought something fresh to the number. This is the San Quentin live take:

I don’t care if I do-die-do-die-do-die-do-die …


The mid to late sixties through to the early seventies saw Cash on a plateau of success which only dropped off gradually until the Rubin reawakening from ’94 through to (and beyond) his death in 2003. But he never lost the household name status that he gained in the mid sixties. From 1969 to 1971 he starred in his own networked TV show, The Johnny Cash Show, on which were showcased not only country and mainstream rock/pop names but also some of the newer people around like Kris Kristofferson and Mickey Newbury. He became friends with Bob Dylan and duetted with him on Girl From The North Country on the latter’s Nashville Skyline. Further tracks featuring the pair have surfaced in later years. They’re a mixed bag but the fact that Johnny and Bob were singing together with such clear and manifest enjoyment gives them a unique attraction.

Although he continued to make generally low end appearances in the Country Chart (plus the same in its Canadian equivalent) Columbia let go of him in 1987, apart from appearances as a member of The Highwaymen, of which more below. Mercury picked him up and their first release was The Night Hank Williams Came To Town which very nearly made my cut.

No one stayed at home for miles around
It was the night Hank Williams came to town

It didn’t do anything chartwise so, in that respect, nothing changed, though he didn’t stop touring until illness curtailed his movement in 1997.

Some back tracking is called for since I’m well aware that, so far, I’ve ignored records that could well be readers’ favourites. In particular, I’ve ignored the comedy records including the mega-selling A Boy Named Sue plus others like One Piece At A Time. Let’s just say I’m not the biggest fan of comedy records. Mind you, I’ll probably take that line “My name is Sue, how do you do!” to my grave.

Others that regrettably didn’t make the cut included, in no particular order:

Jackson which found Johnny and June in Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra territory (and was a personal favourite for years).

Understand Your Man, a rather curious Dylan styled effort utilising the melody line of Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright (and giving those Mexican trumpeters further employment).

Daddy Sang Bass, a Carl Perkins written number, with Johnny and the Carter Family plus more, in full choral mode including chunks of Will The Circle Be Unbroken.

Kristofferson’s Sunday Morning Coming Down which the writer claims was written specifically for Johnny.

The Last Gunfighter Ballad penned by Guy Clark – one of those occasions where the cover almost surpasses the original.

Highway Patrolman, originally from Bruce Springsteen. Although it’s a very good effort I’ll stick with Bruce on this one.

Wanted Man which appears on San Quentin was a Dylan/Cash co-write.

And in Man In Black wherein Johnny tells us why his appearance seems to have a sombre tone.

There were a number of loose get-togethers on record of Cash and what one copywriter termed “The Class Of ˈ56” plus a slightly more formal gathering of mainly wrinklies under the name of The Highwaymen. The group consisted of Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson plus relative youngster, Kris Kristofferson. They released three studio albums between 1985 and 1995 and several videos were made available of their stage appearances. I own Highwaymen Live! which captured their show at Long Island’s Nassau Coliseum in 1990. Cash’s first solo appears five numbers in kicking off with Ring Of Fire. Judging by his vocal delivery he’s either nervous or just not quite into it. But it all comes together for the follow-up, Folsom Prison Blues, and you can see evident relief and pleasure on the faces of the other guys, particularly Kristofferson. It’s captured on this clip which has both numbers:

If you like American patriotic declarations, and not all do, then you’ll go for a later one of Cash’s solo spots in the show featuring Ragged Old Flag with a visibly aging Cash in heavy recitation mode.


All of which brings us roughly up to what I’ve already termed “The Rubin Years”. As with most things, that’s a simplification; there were other recordings made by Johnny during the time he worked with Rubin. In 1993, Johnny signed a contract with Rick Rubin, producer of rap, hip hop and metal records for bands including the Beastie Boys, Run-D.M.C., AC/DC, The Mars Volta and many more. Rubin was also co-founder of the labels Def Jam Records and American Recordings. The initial meeting between the pair was set up by Rubin who “thought it would be really interesting to work with a legendary classic guy”. The first meeting led to more and, sometime later, Cash is reported as having said “he made me feel like Sam Phillips made me feel.” (source for both quotes: “Johnny Cash: The Life Of An American Icon” written by Stephen Miller).

The first result from Cash under the new regime was American Recordings (1994), a solo album featuring only the man and his guitar. This was at his own request. A further album followed, American II: Unchained (1996), which had Cash accompanied by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers with guest appearances from other artists. Both albums contained songs from a wide variety of sources including traditional, or semi-traditional, rock writers (like Beck and Tom Petty himself), singer/songwriters (like Leonard Cohen) plus a few new ones from Cash. Both albums were very well received critically with recognition dawning in many of the more perceptive rock music fans that Cash wasn’t an old has-been capable only of churning out endless repeats of Folsom Prison Blues.

In October 1997, Cash was taken ill on tour during a performance at Flint, Michigan. He got through the show but the rest of the tour was cancelled. Initial diagnosis was of a rare form of Parkinson’s Disease. At the end of the month he suffered an attack in New York which affected his ability to walk. He was rushed to hospital with double pneumonia and blood poisoning and lay unconscious for ten days. One of his visitors during that time was old friend Merle Haggard. The next few months were spent in and out of hospital and recuperating. The pneumonia had damaged his lungs affecting his ability to sing. He was also told he couldn’t tour again.

He continued recording though, releasing American III: Solitary Man and American IV: The Man Comes Around in 2000 and 2002 respectively. The new frailty of his voice was apparent on these with melody lines sometimes either hinted at or even ignored. The results could be hit or miss but almost invariably the sincerity won through. A video of the Trent Reznor song Hurt was made and it won several awards. The YouTube video has had 95M hits.

On 15th May 2003, June Carter Cash died of complications after what should have been relatively straightforward heart surgery. Johnny died from diabetes complications – the miseries that last word conveys – on 12th September 2003. He had continued recording up to 21st August, only three weeks or so before he died.

There were two further American Series releases, American V: A Hundred Highways (2006) and American VI: Ain’t No Grave (2010). In addition a box set entitled Unearthed was released in 2003. Rubin had started compiling it (with Cash’s approval) before Cash died with the intention of releasing it as a celebration of the ten years of work that had gone into the American Series. It comprised 4 CDs of alternates and other tracks, plus one CD with highlights of volumes I to IV.

That was all rather blunt. What can one say about the American Series? It’s anything but consistent but the highs are so magnificent that a Toppermost covering this series alone could be put together with ease.

Graeme Thomson has written a book entitled “The Resurrection Of Johnny Cash: Hurt, Redemption, And American Recordings”. I’ve only dipped into it but in the prologue he states:

“It has generally been unfashionable to examine any artist in the context of their later years, because the mythology and energy of youth has been what the culture demanded, of popular music particularly. But what happens to creative people toward the end of their lives, when they have stopped inventing themselves and know exactly what they want to do and how to do it, brings a whole other level of communication. Even as it burns at a lower heat and rolls at a slower pace, it carries a weight and depth of insight that can be as electrifying as anything previously created.”

Which is all fine and I wouldn’t disagree with a word but it leaves me with something of a problem regarding my selections. I’ve decided to take a not wholly satisfactory approach by limiting them to a particularly mean two only in total, but in addition giving an honourable mention to at least one other track from each of the albums (and the reader will probably already be aware of Hurt). Taking the honourable mentions first:

From (I), I’m going for Thirteen written by Glenn Danzig, a gent I was unaware of until I heard this song. Can see why Cash liked it though – “Got the number thirteen tattooed on my neck/When the ink starts to itch then the black will turn to red”.

(II) – Rowboat written and recorded by Beck. Fabulous original and fabulous cover (and fabulous steel guitar). This album might be the most consistent and most upbeat of the entire series. The three numbers which run in sequence, Rusty Cage, the irresistible The One Rose (That’s Left In My Heart) and the stormy updated rockabilly of Country Boy are all big favourites.

(III) – The set kicks off with a predictably fine and determined I Won’t Back Down which most of us will know from the (also fine) Petty original but I’m going for the Nick Cave written The Mercy Seat. The fact that Cave is a known Cash fan might have contributed to the suitability of this song.

(IV) – An album of contrasts: it includes Hurt of course, it asks us to look at In My Life through the eyes of a man whose life is fading almost by the day, and you do wonder why they bothered with Bridge Over Troubled Water. But Give My Love To Rose is superb and I’m happy to own this version as well as the original and the Folsom Prison cut. But I’m giving my vote to We’ll Meet Again with the Whole Cash Gang in attendance plus Jack Clement on dobro. It even eclipses the Byrds on Dame Vera’s classic. Horribly poignant though.

(V) – By now such poignancy has turned to outright pain and so many songs in this and the final album are imbued with it. Titles like (I’d Be) A Legend In My Time and Love’s Been Good To Me take on a new meaning (though Cash still manages to sound more healthy than Rod McKuen). My choice has death at the centre though the title doesn’t give it away. Hank (and Audrey) Williams, On The Evening Train is about a father and very young child seeing off the child’s mother in a coffin since, “They’re carrying her home on the evening train”. It’s a full-on tearjerker and Cash extracts every last drop from it. Okay, those words may sound cynical. It’s not the first time they’ve been used but give it a listen.

(VI) – Death and Saying Goodbye are everywhere on the final set, with the Hawaiian farewell song Aloha Oe positioned fittingly as the last track. “Until we meet again” adds a warm touch. I’ve gone for the title track, “Brother” Claude Ely’s Ain’t No Grave wherein Johnny/Claude promise to return: “When I hear that trumpet sound I’m gonna rise right out of the ground/Ain’t no grave can hold my body down”. But it’s the opening lines of For The Good Times that linger:

Don’t look so sad
I know it’s over

(Unearthed) – Out of sequence, yes, but Unearthed deserves slightly different treatment. I virtually queued up to get this set but still don’t feel I’ve done justice to it in listening terms. Even now after umpteen visits, differing tracks are vying for my attention. CD2, containing out takes from the 1995/6 period i.e. before the voice had all but disappeared, is a joy from start to finish; every track turns into a favourite within seconds of starting. The sheer fun of making music is what comes through loud and clear: Perkins spurring Cash on in Brown Eyed Handsome Man, the minimalism of Devil’s Right Hand, the joshing at the start of Bird On A Wire, the added orchestration on that track and Pocahontas moving both renditions from great to superb and the organ-only accompanied You’ll Never Walk Alone (on CD3), which he circumnavigates superbly in spite of known range issues and aging voice. In contrast there’s the combination of starkness, dignity, deep reverence and only occasional fragility on CD4 which Cash refers to as “My Mother’s Hymn Book”. These were the sort of songs that Johnny sang to Sam Phillips on that first audition at Sun. I could pick any one, but this is Softly And Tenderly (Jesus is calling) and the brackets are mine.

The first of my (official) selections from the American Series is I See A Darkness written by Will Oldham (aka Bonny ‘Prince’ Billy). Will accompanies Johnny on the song. I own and treasure the original. This is even greater. I read somewhere that Cash listened to the words of his one time label mate Jerry Lee Lewis who said something along the lines of, when you cover a song you should make it your own (and subsequently found words to that effect on the Cash written sleeve notes to Unchained). And that’s what he does, not just here, but so many times and not only on the American Series. This song is one that could have been written for that fading voice, almost disappearing until Will comes along and offers a helping hand to save John from that darkness:

Finally, Cash’s last truly great song, indeed one of his greatest ever, The Man Comes Around. Words aren’t necessary:

Someone once said that we should be privileged to have been alive at the same time as Bob Dylan. No argument there but the same goes at least trebly so for Johnny Cash.

That’s a rather sombre note to close on. Maybe this clip (my thanks to Andrew Shields) featuring a visibly happy Johnny in gospel mode with his old friends from the Sun days alongside him is more fitting:




Johnny Cash photo 3


1. I’ve made several references to the site 706 Union Avenue in the main text. I can’t recommend the writers there highly enough. Not only are all known sessions documented but a very large amount of back-up information is also present including such things as the famous argument between Phillips and Jerry Lee on “the devil’s music” in line-by-line detail. The sessions also cover the earlier incarnation of Sun as the Memphis Recording Service, its subsidiaries and the ‘new’ studio at 639 Madison Avenue and much, much more.

2. The melody and a significant portion of the lyrics for Folsom Prison Blues were lifted from a song on Gordon Jenkins’ 1953 Seven Dreams concept album. The song was Crescent City Blues and this is what it sounded like with spoken intro and vocal from a lady called Beverly Maher. Gordon Jenkins was a composer, pianist and arranger who worked with many of the leading names in the forties and fifties. Jenkins didn’t get credited on the original Sun release but when the song became popular again after the prison concert, Jenkins sued Cash and obtained settlement.

3. Cash’s 76th album was called Boom Chicka Boom. I didn’t do the counting. Wiki did and I assume they would have got it right.

4. “Cowboy” Jack Clement was a producer, recording engineer and back-up musician who worked at Sun reporting to Sam Phillips. He recorded several artists in addition to Cash and also made a couple of singles in his own right. Ten Years (1958) was one. Jack was also co-owner of Fernwood Records, the label that hit the big time with Thomas Wayne’s Tragedy in 1958. In the seventies Jack produced albums for Waylon Jennings and Townes Van Zandt among others. He continued working on and off with Cash mainly as a musician and continued in that role right up to the American Series.

5. On 13th December 1956, there was a session held for Johnny with Jerry Lee Lewis at the piano. This was only a few short weeks after Lewis had travelled from Ferriday, Louisiana to Memphis for his Sun audition. Three tracks were waxed and none saw release while Cash remained at Sun. The tracks were Straight A’s In Love, a Cash composition aimed at the teen market, Goodbye Little Darlin’ which was originally a Gene Autry single, and I Love You Because, a Leon Payne penned number with the most famous version by far being the one from Elvis Presley. On the last named Lewis is definitely there playing single note triplets much of the time before breaking into a restrained – for him – boogie beat. I include that affirmation just in case anyone from 706 Union Avenue gets to read this; they had their doubts. The Cash/Lewis combination is more assured on the country ballad Goodbye Little Darlin’ which Lewis drives along like a slightly tamer Crazy Arms which was recorded at roughly the same time and which was itself indebted to the Ray Price original and his Texas Shuffle.

6. In their coverage of the song, Give My Love To Rose, Wiki stated “Cash said a prisoner from San Quentin Prison asked him to take a message to his wife if he ever went through his hometown. This conversation, according to Cash, was the inspiration for the lyric, which is about a dying convict who is released after ten years of imprisonment. The prisoner is on his way to Louisiana from San Francisco to see his wife and his child one last time before he dies. He collapses along the rails of the railway, where he is picked up by a stranger. The convict asks the man to take his wife his love and a little money.” And that’s what the song is all about.

7. There was another dose of plagiarism involved in The Nearest Thing To Heaven which appeared on the flip of The Ways Of A Woman In Love. This is the Cash song and this is the Hoyt Axton co-written and Hank Locklin performed It’s A Little More Like Heaven from earlier in ’58. Potential trouble would appear to have been headed off by means of the inclusion of Axton and his co-writer in the credits along with Cash. Anyone overly critical of Johnny’s occasional looseness in attribution might recall that the Blessed Bob didn’t always create his own melodies on some of those early numbers and, much more recently, has been suspected of the odd ‘borrow’ of a lyrical nature.

8. I can’t leave the Cash Sun story without mention of Luther Played The Boogie, a song dedicated to you know who. And when he played that darn boogie he played it “in the strangest kind of way”.

9. Columbia stuck to their promise of recording a gospel album with Cash. 1959 saw Hymns By Johnny Cash which was followed by Hymns From The Heart (1962) and The Holy Land (1969) plus later ones.

10. Peter La Farge was born in New York but spent considerable time in New Mexico and Colorado. His early career was colourful, including work as a rodeo rider, singing cowboy songs on local radio stations, U.S. military service on an aircraft carrier during the Korean War plus undercover work for the Central Intelligence Division in the fight against narcotics. After a course in acting in Chicago he moved to New York to pursue a music career. He became part of that generation of artists including Bob Dylan, Dave Van Ronk, Pete Seeger, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Cisco Houston who formed the early sixties New York folk scene. He died in 1965 of either a stroke or – Wiki say “more probably” – an overdose of the drug thorazine.

The other song title that gets mentioned when La Farge’s name crops up is As Long As The Grass Shall Grow which was on Bitter Tears but was re-recorded by Cash for Unearthed. On that occasion the song was performed as a duet with June.

11. Johnny’s effective taking up the cause of Peter La Farge on Bitter Tears, via the inclusion of an unusually high number of the latter’s songs, might have been the model or inspiration for Waylon Jennings’ Honky Tonk Heroes album wherein all bar one of the songs were written by one person, Billy Joe Shaver. Billy Joe also had songs included in Cash’s American Series.

12. June Carter Cash, who was born on 29th June 1929, was a member of the Carter Family and the second wife of Johnny Cash. The original Carter Family consisted of A.P. Carter, his wife Sara and his sister-in-law Maybelle Carter. In that incarnation the family were of immense importance in the early development of country music. After A.P. and Sara’s marriage fell apart, the group disbanded in 1944. Maybelle, however continued recording with her daughters Anita, June and Helen, usually under the name of the Carter Sisters. After the death of A.P. Carter in 1960, Maybelle and daughters started using the name ‘The Carter Family’.

June had a solo career as well as singing with the Carter Sisters/Family. Her repertoire tended towards upbeat and comedy numbers. Her first significant performance with Johnny was on It Ain’t Me Babe in 1964.

Anita Carter also had a solo career and recorded several singles and albums between the early sixties and mid seventies. She scored in the US Country charts via duets with first, Hank Snow and later, Waylon Jennings.

13. Merle Kilgore was a relatively minor country performer but won acclaim for his song writing. In addition to his co-writing credit on Ring Of Fire, he also wrote Wolverton Mountain, a major crossover hit for Claude King (the one with the over precise enunciation) and Johnny Reb for Johnny Horton among others.

14. The L.A. based Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass had a run of hits using a rather tame version of mariachi music from 1962 onwards. The first one that charted was The Lonely Bull that year. In fact the “Tijuana Brass” were not yet in place when that record was made. The horn sounds came solely from Alpert’s trumpet which was overdubbed slightly out of sync. Whether this music had any impact on Cash and his arrangement for Ring Of Fire, I don’t know. The only biography I have of Cash, “Johnny Cash: The Life Of An American Icon” by Stephen Miller, reports him as saying “I dreamed I walked on stage with the Tennessee Three. It was in a coliseum with more than 12,000 people. I stood at centre stage acknowledging the applause and then two trumpeters appeared on my right and kicked off “Ring Of Fire””.

15. Writing the paragraph above reminded me that I’d not mentioned the expansion of the Tennessee Two to the Tennessee Three. The additional member, W.S. “Fluke” Holland joined in 1960 and stayed till Cash’s retirement from the road in 1997. There are no prizes for guessing that he was a drummer; they couldn’t have survived without one indefinitely. Fluke had worked with Carl Perkins prior to joining Johnny and appears on many of Carl’s Sun records.

16. Given Cash’s known liking for gospel in its many forms, Ring Of Fire could easily be mistaken for a metaphor for hell, however that is not the case as the first words make clear, “Love is a burning thing and it makes a fiery ring”. Johnny’s first wife Vivian Liberto has an alternative claim/theory which she expounds in her biography of the man, “I Walked The Line”. She states that June didn’t write the song, Johnny did in his cups, and that the ring of fire relates to a certain part of the female anatomy.

17. There’s an unusual fact relating to Johnny and his known love for prison songs. In 1960, he and his band including Luther and Marshall, accompanied a singer called Ray Liberto Jr. on the Leiber and Stoller song, Riot In Cell Block #9. The song was originally recorded by the Robins, part of which group turned into the Coasters. Liberto, who was apparently known as “Wildman” Ray Liberto – that’s what it says on his obituary – was the brother of Johnny’s first wife Vivian.

18. Merle Haggard was inspired into taking up a career in music after attending a performance at San Quentin by Johnny Cash on New Year’s Day 1959 when he (Haggard) was an inmate. (I have also seen 1958 quoted as the year that performance took place but this was the date quoted in the Wiki biog.) Note that this was roughly a decade before the far better known concerts at Folsom and San Quentin.

19. The AllMusic review of Unearthed (written by Thom Jurek) starts with the words “Unearthed is, before anything else, a monolith”. I had no idea these words were in place and didn’t read them until a couple of weeks had transpired since I committed my own opening sentences to print.

20. In the Wiki piece on the album 6:66 Satan’s Child by Glenn Danzig’s band Danzig, he (Glenn) is reported as saying “It took me about twenty minutes to write “Thirteen”, which is my understanding of Cash and his career. Then I actually went down to him on his farm in Tennessee to teach him the song. He turned out to be a really nice man.”

21. In the sleeve notes to Unchained Cash states: “I love songs about horses, railroads, land, judgment day, family, hard times, whiskey, courtship, marriage, adultery, separation, murder, war, prison, rambling, damnation, home, salvation, death, pride, humor, piety, rebellion, patriotism, larceny, determination, tragedy, rowdiness, heartbreak and love. And Mother. And God.”

22. CD4, the gospel portion of Unearthed, was released as a stand-alone disc in 2004 under the title My Mother’s Hymn Book and it peaked at #9 on the Christian Music Album Chart. Three of the American Series albums made the US Top 40.

23. The song The Man Comes Around was inspired by a dream Johnny had about visiting the Queen of England. In Sylvie Simmons’ excellent notes to Unearthed she quotes Cash as saying, “I had a dream that I was in Buckingham Palace, and I walked in and the Queen was sitting on the floor – which she probably doesn’t do at all – but she had a friend there, and they were laughing and doing their knitting. She looked up at me and kind of gasped and said “Johnny Cash you’re just like a thorn tree in a whirlwind.” And I woke up and I thought “that’s got to be meaningful””. He eventually found the words in the Book of Job. This led to him lifting things from the Book of Revelation which became the song.

24. Jerry Reed’s A Thing Called Love (from the album of the same name) was Johnny Cash’s biggest UK hit single reaching No.4 in 1972, the same position as A Boy Named Sue a few years earlier. These were the man’s only hit singles in this country although sixteen albums reached the Top 50.

25. I’ve touched on a few covers in the main text but there aren’t actually all that many outstanding ones. Cash was so distinctive that attempts to get close to the originals were almost invariably doomed. Which left the options of attempting something different or imposing another distinctive style. The efforts below broadly line up with one or the other of those options:

Get Rhythm – Little Richard

I Still Miss Someone – Iris DeMent (live)

Home Of The Blues – Dwight Yoakam

Hey Porter – Ry Cooder

Folsom Prison Blues – Charlie Feathers (there’s also one from Slim Harpo)

Ballad Of A Teenage Queen – Dresden Dolls (fun but maybe not for multiple listens)

Before leaving Cash covers I should include one number which isn’t a cover at all, more of a tribute, a true dedication. The record is Walk The Line Revisited from Rodney Crowell. Though I’ve not made it clear explicitly anywhere, Crowell was married to Rosanne Cash from 1979 to 1992 and produced much of her early work.

26. Mr Crowell has had a few name checks in this essay and he’s about to get another. In 2001, he recorded an autobiographical number, Telephone Road on the album, The Houston Kid. Included were the following lyrics:

Magnolia Garden bandstand on the very front row,
Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and the Killer putting on a show,
Six years old and barely off my daddy’s knee.
When those rockabilly rebels sent the devil running right through me

I’m grateful to Stephen Miller in “Johnny Cash: The Life Of An American Icon” for pointing me in the direction of that one.

27. I’ve got this far with nary a mention of the Cash voice other than its entirely normal failings due to illness and health. Which, in a way, is reasonable. You’re unlikely to have read this far if you hadn’t been touched by that voice at some time. But I do get fed up with those sentences which start “His guitar playing wasn’t up to much and, technically, that voice wasn’t any great shakes …”. That’s usually followed by a “but” and words and phrases like “strength of personality”, “larger-than-life image” etc. get thrown in. Let’s just get something straight. Johnny Cash had one hell of a voice, of a sort that makes words like “technical” totally irrelevant. His was one of the most distinctive across the entire gamut of popular music from those early records till the day he died. People back then didn’t buy records because of an image. Most of them didn’t even know what he looked like.

28. Until putting this essay together I hadn’t fully appreciated the number of seriously great songs that Johnny had written and I suspect I’m not alone in having underestimated their quality and quantity. Not only is JC up there as one of the great voices in popular music, he’s also a member of the great songwriters.

29. Some time ago when I first started contributing to the Toppermost library of Top Tens, I did a bit of digging into who hadn’t yet ‘been done’. Johnny Cash was among those names. I put him to one side thinking maybe I should get the hang of this Topper thing before embarking on someone of that stature and a household name to boot. It stayed that way until January of 2018 when I received a letter informing me that a very old friend with whom I’d very largely lost touch other than via the exchange of Christmas Cards, had died. Phil’s death had occurred in December and the very helpful and informative letter from his widow was in response to our card. She also provided a link to the Order of Service and Eulogy from the funeral. The four pieces of music chosen came from the pop scene of the fifties and the sixties and were chosen by Phil himself. The final piece was I Walk The Line.

Hence this document. I decided there and then, after asking Phil’s widow if she was happy if I went ahead. It is dedicated in the memory of Phil Good. He, like Johnny had an extremely wide range of interests and achievements plus a personality that didn’t take “No” for an answer.


Johnny Cash (1932–2003)


Johnny Cash photo 4


Johnny Cash official website

Johnny Cash online

The Johnny Cash Project – interactive website

Johnny Cash Discography – Albums (Wikipedia)

Johnny Cash Discography – Singles (Wikipedia)

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame: Johnny Cash

Country Music Hall of Fame: Johnny Cash

Songwriters Hall of Fame: Johnny Cash

Books about Johnny Cash

Rick Rubin talks about his work with Johnny Cash (2011)

Johnny Cash Radio

Johnny Cash Museum in Nashville

Johnny Cash biography (iTunes)

Dave Stephens is the author of two books on popular music. His first, “RocknRoll”, is described by one reviewer as “probably the most useful single source of information on 50s & 60s music I’ve come across”. Dave followed this up with “London Rocks” in 2016, an analysis of the early years of the London (American) record label in the UK. You can follow him on Twitter @DangerousDaveXX

Read the toppermosts of some of the other artists mentioned in this post:
The Carter Family, Guy Clark, Bob Dylan, Charlie Feathers, Merle Haggard, Buddy Holly, Johnny Horton, Waylon Jennings,
Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, Charlie Rich, Billy Joe Shaver, Warren Smith, Townes Van Zandt, Thomas Wayne

TopperPost #700


  1. Andrew Shields
    Feb 25, 2018

    Dave – a thankless task I know but how superbly accomplished. This has to be one of the best pieces on Johnny that I have ever read. Know it could be a 50 with JC, but I might have to have ‘Tennessee Stud’ and ‘Dark As A Dungeon’ in my Top 20. Thanks again for this great piece.

  2. David Lewis
    Feb 26, 2018

    As Andrew said, you could easily do 50, and still miss out on key tracks. My 10 (not to replace but to in some cases agree with, and in the rest to enhance) would be today… A Boy Named Sue, Ring of Fire, Get Rhythm, Folsom Prison, Daddy Sang Bass, 25 Minutes to go, Jackson, Cocaine Blues (yes, I know, 2 from Live at Folsom Prison), Hurt, The Man in Black.
    Because Dave had picked some superb ones, I could relax a little.
    And I’ve just remembered ‘Cry, Cry, Cry’… Ah, man… And my favorite cover of Get Rhythm is Ry Cooder’s. But that Little Richard – just outstanding!

  3. Peter Viney
    Feb 26, 2018

    A definitive article again, Dave. I learned a lot. My main “What no’s?” are the live “San Quentin” and “Jackson” which is so memorably used at the start of the film, “The Help.” I’d have to take one of his novelty routines … I’ll also never forget “My name is Sue. How do you do!” so probably “A Boy Named Sue”. In a way “San Quentin” designed as it was as a crowd pleaser for the night is almost a routine. On the other hand, I loathe “Don’t Take Your Guns To Town” deeply. I’ve heard it a lot because of the Columbia compilation Country Classics: Americana. A little point … Long Black Veil isn’t a country folk song nor is it traditional. It is a pastiche by Marijohn Wilkin & Danny Dill, written in 1959, and knowingly a send-up of the genre, which The Band knew when they covered it (my article here refers). On Ballad of Ira Hayes, I prefer Bob Dylan’s version on the much maligned “Dylan” LP from 1973. On the musical bus tour of Memphis with live music we all sang along to I Walk The Line and Ring of Fire, but as the guide pointed out, Johnny Cash’s home before Sun was much, much nicer than Elvis’s. On to a different Elvis, Johnny Cash was supported on one tour by Elvis Costello’s Attractions. I was told that everyone, including June Carter addressed him in full as “Johnny Cash” and that he preferred to use “Johnny Cash” when speaking about himsef instead of “I” and “me”. So “Can you bring Johnny Cash a cup of coffee?” I got the impression this was tongue-in-cheek irony.

  4. Dave Stephens
    Feb 26, 2018

    Thank you gentlemen. In particular, thank you for the “definitive” Peter. While it would be nice to feel that was the case, I’m only too well aware that, apart from any other possible shortcomings, there are vast chunks of the Columbia period that I didn’t even touch on. I took the view that even with the extended “ten” that Our Esteemed Editor had given me, I wasn’t going to get close to a lot of people’s favourites. I also didn’t make any attempt to catch the Cash humour/irony though there are odd bits like the intro/banter on the Unearthed Bird On A Wire that make us aware of its presence. Thanks also for the info on Long Black Veil, Peter. I now see that it’s been recorded by Jagger with the Chieftains. Don’t know what Andrew feels about that.

  5. Andrew Shields
    Feb 26, 2018

    Have to say that, although I admire both, I am not a huge fan of the Jagger/Chieftains version. My favourite version of ‘Long Black Veil’ coming up in a Toppermost relatively) soon… And, Peter, thanks for info on it…

  6. Peter Viney
    Feb 27, 2018

    Great Toppermosts like this get me listening to more of the artist. I pulled out “Ragged Old Flag” from 1974 and “America” from 1972 for a spin, and it confirmed my feeling that the patriotism on Ragged Old Flag and the religion on Pie In The Sky were unfortunately without irony. Not his best period. But I also re-discovered “The One On The Right is On The Left” (1965) and that is well worthy of another look. I had it in a playlist of “anti-protest songs” suggested by readers of The Band site. The lyrics are superb in this story of a folk group torn by political dissension (think “The Mighty Wind.”): They performed with great virtuosity / And soon they were the rage / But political animosity / Prevailed upon the stage

  7. Steve Paine
    Mar 1, 2018

    Great post, Dave. I came of age during the social upheaval here in the US in the late 1960s. Dylan’s duet with Cash on “Nashville Skyline” forced many of us to reassess the underpinnings of our musical tastes. I’ve been a Cash fan ever since.

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