Johnny Cash was one of those rarest of things: an artist who managed to crossover into all walks of life, somehow meaning something to almost everyone. It's something even rarer still for a country singer.
Born J.R Cash in Arkansas in 1932, he went on to become one of country music’s all-time greatest voices, with his distinctive bass-baritone and the Tennessee Three backing him up, recording songs right up until his death in 2003.
He began his career on the legendary Sun Records, where he recorded with Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis in an impromptu jam session immortalised as the Million Dollar Quartet, and ended his career just as he’d begun it, breaking ground with the Rick Rubin-produced American Recordings albums; some of the finest of his long career.
Along the way, he hosted his own TV show in Nashville and wrote and recorded some of music’s most enduring and well-loved songs.
Holler takes a deep long look into the Man In Black’s illustrious catalogue of songs to pick out some of his very best.
On one level, Johnny Cash’s theme song was a simple explanation for his preferred choice of outfit colour, but it also served as a protest statement against the treatment of the downtrodden and the poor by the wealthy classes, mass incarceration and the war in Vietnam.
Roseanne Cash told Mojo magazine that, to her, the song always “reflected the sadness, the convulsions, just that mythic dark night of the soul that he went through so many times."
Cash wrote this song as a first-person account of the 1937 Mississippi flood that, as a four-year-old, he got caught up in along with his family. It describes them having to leave their home to escape the water rising an inch at a time, surrounded by chickens in willow trees and cows in water “up to their knees”.
He famously performed the song on Sesame Street with Biff, who used square-foot boxes to illustrate the song's lyrics. It also inspired the title of De La Soul’s album 3 Feet High And Rising, after they sampled the song on ‘Magic Number’.
Cash wrote the title track to his 1974 album in the wake of President Nixon's resignation. Cash, who had supported Nixon, had started to feel some doubts because of the president’s policies regarding the Vietnam War and growing divisions in the country.
The spoken word song recounts a conversation between Cash and an elderly gentleman in a town square somewhere. As they look up at an American flag flying, they run through everything that this symbol of US history has had to go through over time.
Written by country legend “Cowboy” Jack Clement, this song from his 1966 novelty album Everybody Loves A Nut pokes fun at the supposed dangers of mixing politics with traditional roots music. It recounts the story of a talented “pickin' singin' folk group” travelling all over America, whose political differences lead to in-fighting and the group eventually breaking up.
One of Johnny Cash’s most well-loved anti-authority songs; a smirking satire on the downsides of the division of labour. The song tells the story of him working at the General Motors car plant in Michigan, fitting wheels onto Cadillacs, all the time knowing he will never be able to afford one of his own.
He devises a plan with a co-worker to “steal” a whole car by taking home bits of a Cadillac one part at a time. After doing this for 25 years, they finally have all the parts needed for a complete Cadillac, but unfortunately, because it’s taken them so long, all the parts are from different years’ models.
Originally written and recorded by Bob Dylan, Cash stepped up with his future wife June Carter to reimagine it as a duet for their Orange Blossom Special album. As legend has it, Cash had met Dylan briefly backstage during one of his performances at The Gaslight Café. They met up again after a show in Newport, trading songs in a motel. One of those songs was ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’, which went on to be a classic in any Johnny Cash live show.
Released in 1958 as the first single from The Fabulous Johnny Cash, this booming gunfighter ballad tells the story of a young cowboy named Billy Joe who, despite his mother advising him not to, leaves his farm for a night out on the town and takes his guns with him. As is often the case, his mother was right, and he gets into a gunfight at a saloon and ends up being shot and killed.
Written by Billy Edd Wheeler and Jerry Leiber, this feisty duet had already been a hit for Lee Hazelwood and Nancy Sinatra in 1967. Johnny Cash and June Carter took it to the no. 2 spot that same year and won a Grammy award with it a year later.
The tale of a married couple who got hitched too hastily and now daydream about going to the mythic town of Jackson to get away from each other, the song originally ended with the first verse before Wheeler suggested to Leiber that they start the song with it instead.
Never afraid to align himself with the marginalised and the unsung, Cash released a whole album of songs, Bitter Tears: Ballads Of The American Indian, about the harsh and unfair treatment of the indigenous people of North America in 1964.
This song, written by folk singer Peter La Farge, tells the story of Ira Hayes, one of six US marines who became famous for raising the flag on Iwo Jima in World War II, only to return home to American soil after the war to be treated with contempt and rejection by society.
Cash managed to squeeze two of his trademark songwriting themes - trains and prisons - into one song with this cut from his 1955 debut studio album Johnny Cash With His Hot And Blue Guitar.
Recorded in Sun Studios in Memphis and produced by Sam Phillips, Cash opened almost all of his concerts with the song, including the show he recorded in Folsom Prison itself, where he gets the loudest cheer of the night for the line, “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die".
His live recording from At Folsom Prison reached no. 1, winning him two Grammy awards when it was released as a single in 1968.
Another hit taken from one of Cash’s legendary prison recordings, this song, written by the poet and children's author Shel Silverstein, became his highest-charting single when the recording of it from At San Quentin was released in 1969.
In his autobiography, Cash describes how he’d only just been given the full song, after Silverstein had played him it one night at a guitar pull, and only read over it a couple of times before he played it in front of an audience in San Quentin prison. In live footage of the show, he can be seen checking a piece of paper for the words.
Probably the greatest song ever about a hangover, it was written by Kris Kristofferson, and as legend has it Kristofferson delivered the demo tape to Cash by landing his National Guard helicopter in Cash’s front yard with the tape in one hand and a beer in the other.
Cash was famously asked by the producers at ABC to change the line "I'm wishing Lord that I was stoned" when he performed it on the Johhny Cash Show TV series, but he refused to comply, making a point of putting particular emphasis on the word “stoned” when he sang it.
Written by Merle Kilgore with June Carter about her burgeoning affection for Cash, it was originally recorded by June’s sister Anita Carter. After hearing Anita's version, Cash said he had a dream where he heard the song accompanied by "Mexican horns", and six months later he recorded it himself, complete with a mariachi horn section and Mother Maybelle and the Carter singers singing back up. They took it all the way to no. 1.
Rick Rubin and Cash had already recorded three hugely successful albums in the American Recordings series, when Rubin suggested covering Trent Reznor’s ‘Hurt’ for the fourth collection, The Man Comes Around.
Cash was suffering from autonomic neuropathy brought on by diabetes by the time he recorded the song, and his health was visibly failing. The accompanying video, directed by Mark Romanek, featured a noticeably frail Cash performing the song in the derelict House Of Cash museum, surrounded by his memories, with June Carter Cash watching over him.
It was made all the more heartbreakingly poignant when June died three months later in May 2003, and Johnny followed her in September of that same year.
"I keep a close watch on this heart of mine," sings Cash in one of his most well-loved songs; a hopeful promise to remain faithful to his first wife, Vivian, while he was on the road, trying to avoid the temptations of a touring musician.
Originally released in 1956 on Sun Records, it went on to become his first country no. 1 single and even managed to make a dent on the pop charts. The song provided the title for the Johnny Cash and June Carter biopic starring Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix as the star-crossed country lovers.
Subscribe and listen to Holler's The Best Johnny Cash Songs Playlist below.