I wrote this list as an assignment for work. It was pretty rad to get paid to write something that I would probably write for fun. I figured I may as well post it up. So, here are what I consider to be the best and most influential Johnny Cash songs, and why.
What are your thoughts? What did I miss? These are in order of release date, not in order of preference.
Cry, Cry, Cry – 1955 – Arguably the song that kicked off Johnny Cash’s career. He toured with Elvis Presley not long after it was released. Has been covered by many contemporary artists such as Elvis Costello and Jack Johnson and Norah Jones.
Folsom Prison Blues – 1956 – One of Johnny Cash’s signature songs. Cash was inspired to write the song after seeing the movie “Inside the walls at Folsom Prison” and performed it live at the actual Folsom Prison.
I Walk The Line – 1956 – An unexpected hit on country radio. Ended up being one of his most popular and well known hits. Included in the Grammy Song Hall of Fame. Also his very first #1 hit. Many people’s favourite Cash song.
I Still Miss Someone – 1958 – Jimmy Buffett performed this song as a dedication to Cash in Auburn, Washington 4 days after his death. Cash performed this song with Bob Dylan backstage during Dylan’s 1966 world tour – the performance appears in the documentary, Eat the Document.
Get Rhythm – 1959 – A fan favourite that is easily relatable about optimism and making the most out of your life, even when it seems tedious and mundane.
Don’t Take Your Guns To Town – 1959 – A major crossover hit appearing on both country and pop top 40 charts. Covered by U2 in 2001. Stayed number 1 on the country chart for 6 consecutive weeks.
Give My Love To Rose – 1960 – A beautiful but sad story, easy to understand and one of the fan favourites off of the At Folsom Prison album.
Jackson – 1963 – Won a grammy in 1968 for best country duet. Is still being used in modern film and television including The Help in 2011.
Understand Your Man – 1964 – This was the last song Cash ever performed in front of an audience: he played it during a performance at the Carter Ranch in Hiltons, VA on July 5, 2003, just months before he passed away.
The Streets of Laredo – 1965 – This song is a traditional cowboy ballad and has been recorded by many artists – it just seems right that an icon such as Cash would cover such an influential, traditional song.
It Ain’t Me Babe – 1965 – A Bob Dylan original – Cash and Dylan admired each other’s work a great deal and with Bob Dylan’s personal blessing, Cash recorded this song.
25 Minutes to Go – 1968 – A song about the final minutes of a man facing execution on death row. While tinged with humor, it is ultimately very dark. Not his most popular song, but one that is very much “Cash.”
Cocaine Blues – 1968 – A personal favourite off “Folsom Prison Blues” and a beautiful and chilling cautionary tale about drug abuse and inevitability of getting caught.
A Boy Named Sue – 1969 – Cash recorded this song live at San Quentin Prison to a captivated audience. The novelty and rawness of this cover made it an instant hit. He also performed it for Nixon in 1970, at the request of the president. It’s also considered his first “crossover” hit. Not just country – not just rock and roll – not just gospel.
Man In Black – 1971 – A protest song with lyrics reflecting important social issues. “I wear black for the poor and beaten down, livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town”. Received a standing ovation the first time it was ever performed live. Also reflects Cash’s persona.
One Piece At A Time – 1976 – His final solo number one hit. While many stars of the ‘50s had reached their peak by the ‘70s, Johnny Cash was still going strong 21 years after his first single. This song once again showcased his sense of humour, and more importantly, proved that the legend was not through having No. 1 hits.
Sunday Mornin’ Coming Down – 1970 – CMA song of the year in 1970. Through recording this song, he became friends with Kris Kristofferson, who he eventually formed the “Highway Men” supergroup with.
Ring of Fire – 1983 – Arguably Cash’s biggest hit and most popular song. Ranked No. 4 on CMT‘s 100 Greatest Songs in Country Music in 2003 and #87 on Rolling Stone‘s list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
Highway Man – 1985 – Kris Kristofferson had recorded with Willie Nelson, who had recorded with Waylon Jennings, who had recorded with Johnny Cash. However, the four never recorded together until this Jimmy Webb-written song united the four legends. It became a radio staple in the summer of 1985, hitting the top on August 17 – the final time Cash’s voice would be appear on a No. 1 country single.
The Beast In Me – 1994 – Still relevant and showing up in modern films and TV including 2011 film The Hangover: Part II and is being covered by many contemporary artists such as The Vaccines and Mark Lanegan..
Hurt – 2003 – Many consider this NIN cover a “farewell” masterpiece in the Cash collection. It never reached top 40 on the modern charts, but went double platinum in sales and was the CMA single of the year. Also sealed his legacy with the younger generation.
God’s Gonna Cut You Down – 2006 – Many celebrities got together to pay tribute to Johnny Cash by appearing in the music video, directed by Tony Kaye. Watch it here: