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Top 10 Johnny Cash Songs

Updated on May 5, 2017
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Since completing university, Paul has worked as a bookseller, librarian, and freelance writer. Born in the UK, he now lives in Florida.

Johnny Cash and his beloved wife, June Carter. The pair had on/off affairs for many years, before they eventually tied the knot.  June wrote the song, "Ring of Fire" about their turbulent but passionate relationship, which Johnny later recorded.
Johnny Cash and his beloved wife, June Carter. The pair had on/off affairs for many years, before they eventually tied the knot. June wrote the song, "Ring of Fire" about their turbulent but passionate relationship, which Johnny later recorded. | Source

Johnny Cash was one the most prolific recording artists of all time with some marvelous recordings stretching over five decades, so picking his top ten songs was never going to be easy!

From his early days at Sun Records through until his time working with Rick Rubin on his 'American Recordings' series, Johnny Cash put out a great deal of top songs and albums, with many of his recordings now rightly considered as classics.

I myself have been listening to Johnny Cash since I was a child (my father was a huge fan of his). I finally got to see my hero live at the Glastonbury Festival 1994 in England. He was already suffering health problems, although they weren't evident at that point and sadly Johnny Cash died just over 9 years later in 2003.

My love for Johnny Cash and his material has never gone away over the years, if anything, it has grown. Here is my list of what I believe to be the best Johnny Cash songs.

You build on failure. You use it as a stepping stone. Close the door on the past. You don't try to forget the mistakes, but you don't dwell on it. You don't let it have any of your energy, or any of your time, or any of your space.

— Johnny Cash

1. Hurt

Released on the album, The Man Comes Around, Hurt was written by Trent Reznor of the band, Nine Inch Nails,

This song, along with the Hurt video that was made to accompany it, is considered by many to be Cash’s epitaph and theme song.

Cash was 71 years old and frail when he recorded it, but still managed to make the song into his own. It would be unthinkable not to include this track in my top ten Johnny Cash songs.

Of emotions, of love, of breakup, of love and hate and death and dying, mama, apple pie, and the whole thing. It covers a lot of territory, country music does.

— Johnny Cash

2. Jackson

Written by Jerry Leiber and Billy Edd, Johnny Cash and June Carter won a grammy for their version in 1968. The passion and chemistry between them is obvious. Cash and Carter would be married later that year after the release.

One of the great Cash and Carter duets, the lyrics concern a strong-willed woman castigating her wayward man. The song starts with the line, "We got married in a fever, hotter than a pepper sprout."

I wear black because I'm comfortable in it. But then in the summertime when it's hot I'm comfortable in light blue.

— Johnny Cash

3. Don’t Take Your Guns to Town

Released in 1958 as a single, this song provided a number one hit for Cash.

The poignant song tells the story of a mother's warning to her son, who eventually meets a tragic end, and is performed in the simple but effective musical style that Cash perfected.

You've got a song you're singing from your gut, you want that audience to feel it in their gut. And you've got to make them think that you're one of them sitting out there with them too. They've got to be able to relate to what you're doing.

— Johnny Cash

4. Folsom Prison Blues

One of the Johnny Cash singles that was written early in his career when he was serving in the US Air Force in the 1950s and released by Sun records.

The live version was recorded at Folsom Prison in 1968 and released as a single and is now considered to be one of the best Johnny Cash songs of all time. It combines two common Cash themes, prisons and railroads and includes the now legendary lyric line, “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.”

When my wife died, I booked myself into the studio just to work, to occupy myself.

— Johnny Cash

5. Ring of Fire

Co-written by Cash’s wife-to-be and Merle Kilgore, this passionate song was Cash’s biggest hit, staying at number one for seven weeks in 1963.

Written about June Carter’s feelings regarding falling for Cash and originally recorded by June’s sister, Cash said he heard Mexican horns accompanying the song in a dream, then went into the studio and recorded it that way.

When I record somebody else's song, I have to make it my own or it doesn't feel right. I'll say to myself, I wrote this and he doesn't know it!

— Johnny Cash

6. Orange Blossom Special

Based on an old bluegrass fiddle tune about a luxury train that speeded down the east coast from New York to Florida, Cash sang the lyrics and replaced the fiddle break with double harmonicas, making the song break into a great spectacle, as well as providing an original sound.

The song was also the title track of his 1965 album.

I start a lot more songs than I finish, because I realize when I get into them, they're no good. I don't throw them away, I just put them away, store them, get them out of sight.

— Johnny Cash

7. Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down

A Kris Kristofferon song written about alcoholism and alienation, Cash’s voice drips with the raw experience of a man who’s suffered multiple addictions himself.

The song begins: “Well I woke up Sunday morning with no way to hold my head that didn’t hurt, and the beer I had for breakfast wasn’t bad so I had one more for dessert.”

I love to go to the studio and stay there 10 or 12 hours a day. I love it. What is it? I don't know. It's life.

— Johnny Cash

8. A Boy Named Sue

My Johnny Cash top ten begins with a Shel Silverstein song first recorded by Cash live at San Quentin Prison in 1969. "A Boy Named Sue" was so new to him, Cash had to read some of the words off a lyric sheet.

Cash had the ability to make a song written by someone else into his own and this is one great example.

The original version had the term "son-of-a-bitch" beeped out, but the song is now available uncensored. Features the lyric, “He kicked like a mule and he bit like a crocodile.”

I knew I wanted to sing when I was a very small boy. When I was probably 4 years old. My mother played a guitar and I would sit with her and she would sing and I learned to sing along with her.

— Johnny Cash

9. God's Gonna Cut You Down

Cash’s stomping interpretation of this traditional folk song injects it with a dark, gritty menace. Cash's God is angry and vengeful in this song.

Cash was becoming acutely aware of his own mentality by this time. The song was written in 2003 when he was suffering a health decline that would eventually lead to his death.

The things that have always been important: to be a good man, to try to live my life the way God would have me, to turn it over to Him that His will might be worked in my life, to do my work without looking back, to give it all I've got, and to take pride in my work as an honest performer.

— Johnny Cash

10. Highwayman

The 1980s wasn’t Cash’s greatest decade, but the first album by the Highwaymen, a country music supergroup consisting of Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson, was an exception.

The title track has a haunting quality and the delivery of the song, with each member of the band having their own separate verse to sing, is inspired.

God gives us life and takes us away as He sees fit.

— Johnny Cash

© 2014 Paul Goodman


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