Johnny Cash
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Johnny Cash: The Man In Black

Johnny Cash was known as the Man In Black.

Born J. R. Cash on 26th February 1932 he would go on to be one of the biggest and most well-known country stars of the last century. His music and style has inspired a whole generation of artist and musicians amongst people from every walk of life. A man of the people, a rebel, and a god-fearing man, he was a man of many contradictions, but he was always himself. On stage, he was a rebellious free thinking unapologetic man with a calm bass-baritone voice while his demeanour was that of a sombre and humble man. He performed free prison concerts, advocated for Native American rights, and wore an all-black stage outfit earning him the nickname of The Man In Black.

Cash has gone on to sell over 90 million records making him one of the best-selling artists in the world. I’m pretty sure the majority of that was down to my grandpa, I’ve never known a man to own so many Johnny Cash records. He wasn’t just a country music superstar embracing many different genres and fusing them into the Johnny Cash sound, this included blues, folk, rock and roll, and gospel. His massive crossover appeal has seen him inducted into the Country Music, Rock and Roll, and Gospel Music Hall of Fame and inspiring everyone from rappers, to punk rockers, actors, and everyone in between.

Johnny Cash would pass away, a few months after his beloved June, on 12th September 2003, yet his music and message still live on in his music and a really good biopic aptly named I Walk The Line. So let’s delve into the complicated man behind so many of our favourite songs as I pick my 20 best songs from his career and take a look at this history.

Before He Became The Man In Black

J. R. Cash was born to poor cotton farmers, Carrie Cloveree and Ray Cash, in Kingsland, Arkansas during the Great Depression. He was the middle child, having three older siblings and three younger ones. Tommy the youngest would go on to also be a successful country artist. For those who only know him as Johnny Cash, it might be surprising to learn that J. R. was his actual name, being a compromise between his parents. He wouldn’t actually start using the name John until he enlisted in the airforce, as initials are not permitted as first names. He got to pick his own name. It wasn’t until 1955 when he signed with Sun Records that he would start going by Johnny Cash.

Johnny Cash was a man of the people and wrote from his own personal experiences, Five Feet High and Rising is actually about the farm the family lived and worked on in Dyess, Arkansas which experienced flooding. The Great Depression would also shape the man who would become Johnny Cash, making him a lifelong supporter and advocate for the plight of the poor and working class. Despite Cash always claiming to not be political his songs spoke about the prison system, the struggles of the poor, and his experiences growing up in the South. His lyrics also included commentary on how the system was stacked against minorities including African Americans and Native Americans.

In 1944 Cash would experience the first great loss in his life that also shaped the musical and lyrical style he was well known for. Often sorrowful and dark at times, Cash would rarely write or pick any happy songs to record and perform. His older brother Jack, who he was very close with, would have an accident with an unguarded table saw, which resulted in such horrific injuries it led to his death a week later. This would be around the time that a young Cash would begin to write songs and learn the guitar, his mum encouraging him, maybe as a way for him to express the pain he was going through. His high-tenor voice would progress to a bass-baritone while his influences would come from gospel and traditional Irish music.

In 1950 Cash would join the United States Air Force, after basic training he became a Morse code operator in Landsberg, West Germany. He spent his time there intercepting Soviet Army transmissions. Cash didn’t like being told what to do though, his dislike of authority would continue throughout his life, but while in the army would start his first band and acquired his distinctive scar on the right side of his jaw, from a cyst removal.

20 Johnny Cash Songs That You Need To Hear Now

Johnny Cash released over 70 albums so picking just 20 songs was a hard task, even for a huge fan like myself. On my journey, I found some hidden gems from his 1990 release Boom Chika Boom which is a deeply underrated album. Along with this, we have some absolute classics, some family favourites, picked by me, my mum, and my daughter, she is 8 by the way and a whole host of what we can lovingly call protest songs.

Honourable mention to Daddy Sang Bass, which is an incredible song about family and religion. Written by Carl Perkins, with lines from the chorus of Will the Circle Be Unbroken? and released in 1968 from his Holy Land album, I couldn’t start this list without mentioning this song.

Ring Of Fire | Ring of Fire: The Best of Johnny Cash | 1963

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Credit; Getty Images

Written by Cash’s second wife June Carter and Merle Kilgore, though there are conflicting reports as to whether Carter did write the song or Cash, nonetheless, it is a beautiful song about love and lust while also being one of his most well-known tracks. If you are a fan of drinking games, there is a very popular one with the same name.

Ring Of Fire is one of his most beloved songs, explaining how love can be painful and fun while also dangerous, just like fire. The song really encapsulates the idea that once you are in it, in that much love, lust, and passion with someone then it is hard to escape. There are some really sweet moments in there too, with lyrics such as “The taste of love is sweet when hearts like ours meet” and “I fell for you like a child, oh but the fire went wild”. There is also a hint of this person he is singing about being the forbidden fruit, considering this is written by June Carter and the two were very much attracted to one another during this time, it might be the best commentary of their relationship.

The spirit of June Carter overshadows me tonight with the love she had for me and the love I have for her. We connect somewhere between here and Heaven. She came down for a short visit, I guess, from Heaven to visit with me tonight to give me courage and inspiration like she always has. She’s never been one for me except courage and inspiration. I thank God for June Carter. I love her with all my heart.

A Boy Named Sue | At San Quentin | 1969

A chance to hear Cash at his funniest and most whimsical, telling the story of a boy named Sue and his chance encounter with his absent father. It was written by humorist, children’s author, and poet Shel Silverstein.

Well, I grew up quick and I grew up mean

My fist got hard and my wits got keener

Roam from town to town to hide my shame

Folsom Prison Blues | Johnny Cash with His Hot and Blue Guitar! | 1957

Initially recorded in 1955 for Cash’s debut album the definitive version would be his live recording from Folsom Prison in 1968. This is his signature song, being one of his most famous self-penned tracks, and how he started every show, after of course saying the infamous line ‘Hello, I’m Johnny Cash’.

It is a very simple song, with storytelling lyrics and the music sounding like a steam train. It does feed into his outlaw persona very well, with the iconic line “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die”

When I was just a baby my mama told me, “Son
Always be a good boy, don’t ever play with guns”
But I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die

Junkie And The Juicehead Minus Me | The Junkie and the Juicehead Minus Me | 1974

The Junkie and The Juicehead Minus Me was written by Kris Kristofferson, a man who would pen many tracks for The Man In Black and even join him in The Highwaymen, a country supergroup that we will be looking at later.

I can read my fortune in the bottom of a glass
And I can see it’s time for me to make my last request
Won’t you fill my grave with whiskey when I’m laid away to rest
So the boys can say I drank myself to dead

Man In Black | Man In Black | 1971

Man in Black is a protest song written by Johnny Cash and was released in 1971. The song goes a long way in explaining, or at least creating a story behind why he wore black on stage. The real reason was that it was easier to keep black clothes looking clean while on long tours, but let’s not let that get in the way of a good song. It details that you always need a Man In Black to stand up for people who the system is stacked against. It is a truly huge political statement against the treatment of the poor, mass incarnation, and the war in Vietnam.

What Is Truth | 1970

Another self-penned song from Johnny Cash but this one was a huge middle finger to the President, Richard Nixon, or at least those people who were anti-black, anti-hippie, and anti native American. The whole story can be seen in a wonderful Netflix documentary ReMastered: Tricky Dicky & The Man In Black, which does go really in-depth about this story and why it all came to a head in 1970.

A quick summary is in 1970, Johnny Cash was invited to perform at the White House for Richard Nixon, his office requested he sings three songs specifically. Cash wasn’t happy about two of the requested material, going so far as to say he couldn’t learn them at such short notice, the truth was a little deeper.

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The first was a satirical Merle Haggard song called Okie from Muskogee which was about people who despised hippies, young drug users, and Vietnam War protesters. Not very on brand for Cash as he was a known drug taker, friends with hippies, and also saw the horrors of the Vietnam War when he visited the troops. The next song was just as bad.

Welfare Cadillac is a song that chastises those on welfare by Guy Drake. Another song that didn’t quite add up with Cash’s beliefs and his own background growing up poor in Arkansas. The last request was A Boy Named Sue, which he more than happily accepted. Instead, he chose three other songs to go with the one he accepted, The Ballad of Ira Hayes, Man in Black, and of course What Is Truth.

And it didn’t really matter if the truth was there
It was the cut of his clothes and the length of his hair
And the lonely voice of youth cries
“What is truth?”

Jackson | 1967

Jackson is a song written in 1963 by Billy Edd Wheeler and Jerry Leiber.

I Walk The Line | 1956

written and recorded in 1956 by Johnny Cash.

Sunday Morning Coming Down | The Johnny Cash Show | 1970

written by Kris Kristofferson

“You know, not everyone who has been on ‘the bum’ wanted it that way. The Great Depression of the 30s set the feet of thousands of people—farmers, city workers—it set ’em to ridin’ the rails. My Daddy was one of those who hopped a freight train a couple of times to go and look for work. He wasn’t a bum. He was a hobo but he wasn’t a bum. I suppose we’ve all….all of us ‘been at one time or another ‘drifter at heart’, and today like yesterday there’s many that are on that road headin’ out. Not searchin’ maybe for work, as much as for self-fulfillment, or understanding of their life…trying to find a *meaning* for their life. And they’re not hoppin’ freights much anymore. Instead they’re thumbin’ cars and diesel trucks along the highways from Maine to Mexico. And many who have drifted…including myself…have found themselves no closer to peace of mind than a dingy backroom, on some lonely Sunday morning, with it comin’ down all around you.”

The Ballad of Ira Hayes | Bitter Tears | 1964

written by folk singer Peter La Farge

Father And Daughter | The Junkie and the Juicehead Minus Me | 1974

written by Cat Stevens [] as Father and Son

Don’t Take Your Guns To Town | The Junkie and the Juicehead Minus Me | 1974

written by Johnny Cash

Crystal Chandeliers And Burgundy | The Junkie and the Juicehead Minus Me | 1974

written by Jack Wesley Routh

Singin’ In Vietnam Talkin’ Blues | Man In Black | 1971

written and originally recorded by Johnny Cash.

One Piece At A Time | One Piece At A Time | 1976

country novelty song written by Wayne Kemp

Cats In The Cradle | Boom Chicka Boom | 1990

a 1974 folk rock song by Harry Chapin

Harry Chapin, Sandy Chapin

A Backstage Pass | Boom Chicka Boom | 1990

written by Johnny Cash about a willie nelson concert he attended.

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Handwritten lyrics of I Draw The Line that was sold at auction in 2010

I Draw The Line | Boom Chicka Boom | 1989

A song that seems to be the counterpoint to I Walk the Line. Whereas I Walk The Line talks about his first wife and how he will do just enough to not get hurt or get into trouble, we all know how that worked out, I Draw The Line feels like a musical commitment to his second wife, June Carter Cash.

Cash was no saint, that much is clear when you delve deeper into his life, even with June he would struggle with addiction and infidelity but June grounded him in a way. He doesn’t hide any of his indiscretions in the lyrics of this song, making it very clear that he has made mistakes and still often looks and fantasizes, but he is committed to the love of his life.

Yes, a weird way to be romantic but that’s just Johnny Cash, especially during the last 20 years of his career when he would focus even more on redemption and reflecting on his life. A many-layered man who was accepting of growth, this is a must-listen for anyone who wants to explore his larger work.

I Draw The Line wasn’t even on the original version of Boom Chicka Boom, or the Europen version, but It can be found on Spotify.

And I draw the line that at going on
When I approach the danger zone
And I draw the line at going through
With anything that would lose me you

Hidden Shame | Boom Chicka Boom | 1990

written for cash by Elvis Costello.

They say you always hurt the one you love
And I’m not saying if I did or if I didn’t
But like my shame, that kind of love is always hidden
They locked me up here for the ideas in my head
They never got me for the thing I really did

Get Rythem | I Walk The Line B-Side | 1956

Get Rythem, when you sing the blues

Bam is a self discribed spooky bitch who loves punk music, deathmatches & Edgar Allen Poe. She is a lover of books, words & old movies. She has been described by few as an Inebriate Facilitation Specialist but loyal & fiercely independent by most.

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