A dozen years after Johnny Cash’s death, he has become something of a mythical figure. Heidi Newfield’s “Johnny and June,” Jason Aldean’s “Johnny Cash,” George Strait’s album cut “House of Cash” and Rainey Qualley’s current single “Me and Johnny Cash” all owe an obvious debt to the Man in Black.
So in an era when upbeat party songs have reigned in the genre, it wouldn’t be out of the norm to expect songwriters who want to reference a Cash song would turn to his rabble-rousing “Folsom Prison Blues,” the devotional pledge “I Walk the Line” or the cheery-sounding “Ring of Fire.”
Instead, three songs released in 2015 have engaged the dour “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” in which a hungover single male looks at the world around him and wallows in loneliness.
“It’s a song of desolation,” says Johnny Cash Museum founder Bill Miller. “It’s a song of somebody being down and out and in search of things, and it does seem out of step with what’s going on in today’s contemporary country music lyrics.”
The title made its first appearance this year in the Keith Urban/Eric Church duet “Raise ’Em Up” — currently nominated for Country Music Association (CMA) musical event of the year — in the setup to a funeral: “Black umbrellas in the pourin’ rain/Sunday morning coming down, Amazing Grace.”
Urban recycled the reference in his current “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16” (No. 2, Country Airplay), mentioning “Sunday Morning” and its author, Kris Kristofferson, amid such iconic cultural landmarks as John Wayne, Superman and Don McLean’s “American Pie.”
Then there’s Michael Ray’s “Real Men Love Jesus” (No. 48, Country Airplay), which contrasts “Saturday nights out on the town” with “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” pointing to the complex mix of hard exterior and vulnerable sensitivity that’s a hallmark of a developed 21st-century male.
“There’s been a thing happening with that song, ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down,’ ” concedes Ray, “but it’s because it’s the truth. That’s what country music is — it’s honesty. It’s truth.”
Released during an era when the 45-rpm single was king, “Sunday Morning” has a double 45th anniversary in October. It topped the Billboard country singles chart dated Oct. 10, 1970, then earned Kristofferson song of the year honors from the CMA four days later. It’s the only time in history that a song reached those two peaks in such a short span of time.
But in some ways, its accomplishments have been overshadowed by the mystique of its presentation. For starters, it has been connected to a rift between Kristofferson and management at the Columbia Recording Studios, where he worked as a janitor. Songwriters had been banned from attending artists’ sessions, which prevented him from pitching songs to Cash when the Man in Black visited the studio. So Kristofferson — according to the legend — flew a helicopter to Cash’s home to deliver the “Sunday Morning” demo in person.
“That’s true,” Cash told Musician magazine in the 1980s. “He fell out of that helicopter with a beer in one hand and a tape in the other, and said, ‘By God, I’m gonna get a song to you one way or another.’ ”
However, record producer-author John Carter Cash says Kristofferson disputes that story.
“Kris did land a helicopter in my dad’s yard, gave my dad a song, and Kris was rather drunk when he did it,” says John Carter. “And Kris will tell the story right now that it was not ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down,’ and that the song he gave my dad was not very good. It’s become this great myth.”
But another piece of the “Sunday Morning” folklore is indisputable. The single came from an ABC taping of The Johnny Cash Show at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, and network censors told Cash that one line in the song — “Lord, I wish that I was stoned” — needed to be changed. They suggested he replace the word “stoned” with “home.”
Instead, Cash sang “stoned,” delivering it with added emphasis while gazing into the Ryman balcony where Kristofferson was seated. Cash was, in effect, taking a stand for artistic integrity, putting himself on the line in a way that impressed Kristofferson immensely.
“He’s got that combination of [Abraham] Lincoln and total wild man, a very spiritual guy who’s about to explode any moment,” said Kristofferson in 2005. “So the tension, I think, is what made him so powerful onstage.”
The tension in “Sunday Morning” is part of why the song has become an ideal reference point for modern country songs. Cash and Kristofferson are both iconic Country Music Hall of Fame members, and the performance itself embraces both the bitter and the sweet. An orchestra — complete with strings, a horn section and a tinkly bell tree — provides a sense of structure, while Cash’s deep, powerful voice lends an ominous weight to the isolation that the song’s character is experiencing.
“It’s such a personal insight into one’s life and one’s emptiness,” notes John Carter. “And of course, my dad became known for looking at himself and being able to expose himself and not lose his dignity. This is a forerunner for a song like ‘Hurt’ where my dad could say, ‘This is who I am, and I’m not ashamed of it,’ and then suddenly people relate to it. Dad had that nearly supernatural ability to do that, and there’s not many artists who can.”
Meanwhile, the “Sunday Morning” references will likely stop. All three of the songs that call attention to it — “Raise ’Em Up,” “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16” and “Real Men Love Jesus” — were written before any of them appeared on the radio, so none of the writers knew that anyone else was mentioning “Sunday Morning.” But now that the phrase is out there, it’s no longer unique.
“There’s a record rep we had that called me one Sunday morning drunk from a parking lot, and he was listening to ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down’ over and over again in his car,” says “Real Men” songwriter Brad Warren. “I was like, ‘Man, that song means a lot to some people.’ But I think we’ve reached our limit on how often you can say ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down.’ ”