In the course of his almost five-decade recording career, Johnny Cash created many of the greatest songs in country and pop music. With a song catalog that featured love ballads mixed with material that shone a light on social situations, any conversation of Johnny Cash songs will reveal a man who was constantly in search of answers when it came to the mystery of life.
Cash’s music was influenced by such musical geniuses as Sam Phillips in the early years, and in the last decade of his life, Rick Rubin. A look at fifteen of his best reflects the changing times of America and the music business.
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15. Johnny Cash – “Don’t Take Your Guns To Town”
Cash had quite the way with a story song, and this heartbreaking western anthem became his first chart-topper after his move from Sun to Columbia Records. Cash’s close relationship with his mother Carrie no doubt inspired the song, which was voted as one of the Top 100 Western Songs of all-time from the Western Writers of America in 2014.
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14. Johnny Cash – “One Piece At A Time”
By 1976, Cash’s fortunes as a recording artist were very much hit or miss. He made his final trip to the top of the Billboard Country Singles chart with a song that made an impact on many listeners with its lyrics of the ultimate dream machine. So much so, in fact, that a fan actually made a car based on the song for Cash that is on display at the Storyteller’s Museum, a building devoted to Cash in rural Hickman County, Tenn. where the singer lived part-time.
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13. Johnny Cash – “The One On The Right Is On The Left”
Some of Cash’s performances were very serious in their approach to social issues, such as “The Ballad of Ira Hayes.” However, this 1966 release proved to be one of his more humorous takes on the differences between the left and the right. And it’s still very much true to today!
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12. Johnny Cash – “Daddy Sang Bass”
A hit in the midst of his 1969-71 hot streak which included his ABC-TV variety show, this Carl Perkins composition shone the light on Cash’s Gospel roots, and became a classic of both genres, evoking a feeling and a spirit of a time that felt far away in the midst of daily Vietnam War updates from Walter Cronkite.
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11. Johnny Cash – “Understand Your Man”
Ironically, the song was the last that Cash would ever perform in public on July 5, 2003 – just a few weeks after the passing of his beloved June. The lyrics were perhaps Cash at his most cocky or belligerent – depending upon your definition. It was the story of a man telling his significant other how things were going to be, or he was going to be hitting the highway. Cash approached the song with dead-on swagger, making for a classic for the ages.
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10. Johnny Cash – “Ballad of a Teenage Queen”
Cash’s musical career stretched throughout many musical eras, and this was perhaps his best version of the 50s sound. Cash’s “Boom Chicka Boom” trademark sound was finely-tuned by the time the song was released in 1958, and the Sun release knocked “Great Balls of Fire” from the top of the country charts.
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9. Johnny Cash – “Flesh and Blood”
One of the most realistic love songs of any artists’ catalog, this 1970 chart-topper could very well be used as an example for professors if they were to teach the art of love songwriting. You will be hard pressed to find any cliches on this one, which was undoubtedly inspired by his new-found happiness with June.
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8. Johnny Cash – “A Boy Named Sue”
Cash was intrigued by the humorous lyrics of a song that Shel Silverstein first performed at a songwriters’ pull at the Cash homestead. In fact, he was so much a fan of the song that he decided to take the lyric sheet with him to San Quentin, where he was slated to perform on Feb. 24, 1969. For reasons unknown but to Cash, he decided to set the lyrics on the stand in front of him, and perform the song for the captive audience, and the results were legendary. Some have said Cash could have inspired a revolt that night had he wanted to, and this performance – particularly the lyric ‘Now, you’re gonna die’ – was pure electricity!
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7. Johnny Cash – “I Walk The Line”
Cash knew his way around a love song long before falling for June, as this composition was inspired by his first marriage to Vivian Liberto. Phillips was responsible for the song becoming slightly faster than the ballad that Cash originally wrote, perhaps altering the pages of country music history in the process. The song was so powerful that it inspired two movies – a 1970 film starring Gregory Peck, and the 2005 biopic that starred Joaquin Phoenix.
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6. Johnny Cash – “Man In Black”
It wasn’t his biggest hit, but when you utter the phrase “Johnny Cash songs,” this one is the most important – as the singer reveals his reasons for the color of his attire and personality. The lyrics of this 1971 top ten hit also reveal much of the social activism that was so much a part of Cash’s career. He was a voice for the oppressed, and this song detailed that about as good as any.
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5. Johnny Cash – “Jackson”
The love story of John R. Cash and June Carter was one that took a while to develop, and while later performances such as “The Loving Gift” and “If I Were A Carpenter” were evidence of the love and passion between them, this performance was proof of the spark that was beginning to happen between husband and wife. Many years later, Victoria Principal was quoted as saying that the images this song portrayed between Cash and Carter served as inspiration for how she approached the early years of the union of Bobby and Pam Ewing on Dallas. We know the feeling!
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4. Johnny Cash – “Hurt”
From a chart standpoint, it barely caused a ripple. But, any conversation concerning Johnny Cash songs has to include the lyrics of Trent Reznor – which took on new life from Cash, seemingly at the end of his long struggle with life and his demons. Never before had an artist been so willing to show their vulnerability at such a late stage in their career, but that’s why Johnny Cash was Johnny Cash.
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3. Johnny Cash – “Folsom Prison Blues”
Image, sometimes, is stronger than the truth. Cash conveyed such feeling of a man behind bars in 1955 that many listeners believed that Cash was indeed an ex-convict. Throw in his albums at Folsom Prison and San Quentin, and it would have been easy to fall in line with that way of thinking. However, though the singer was arrested a few times during his life, he never spent a single night in prison. Yet a listen to the lyrics about the sound of the train just outside in the distance made one think that he had been sentenced himself, rather than just him being someone who felt a considerable amount of empathy for those who had…
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2. Johnny Cash – “Sunday Morning Coming Down”
Whether the legend that Kris Kristofferson landed his helicopter at Cash’s mansion to play him this song was true or not, it doesn’t take anything away from the fact that these four minutes from 1970 might be the most potent bit of Nashville songwriting ever. To perform the song on his ABC series, Cash was told he would have to drop the reference to “wishing Lord that I was stoned.” It might have been a suggestion to satisfy conservative censors, but can you imagine how different the song and the performance would have been without it? Nearly five decades later, this song about the weariness one felt while living life is a great example of a singer and a songwriter at their best.
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1. Johnny Cash – “Ring Of Fire”
This song has all the ingredients of a classic record. Written by Merle Kilgore and June Carter, the lyrics were pretty much a love letter to Cash – as both she and him were still married to other spouses at the time. Throw in the trumpets – which came to Cash, as the story goes, in a dream, and you have one of the most unforgettable moments in country music history – one that still burns, burns, burns bright.
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