In honor of his birthday February 26, we’ve gathered 12 top Johnny Cash songs and covers for your playlist today.
Few artists have had as profound an impact on the music world as Johnny Cash. Although he’s best known for his country music, Cash’s repertoire also included gospel, folk and rock — he even recorded a haunting cover of the Nine Inch Nails song “Hurt” toward the end of his career.
Dubbed “The Man in Black” due to his all-black attire during concerts, Cash’s influence on the music world was far-reaching and continues to inspire artists to this day. Bob Dylan, another icon in the music world, has described Cash as an inspiration and it’s not uncommon to hear modern artists perform covers in concert.
On his birthday, remember five of the most iconic Johnny Cash songs, lesser-known gems and a few covers by musicians who love the Man in Black as much as we do.
1. “Folsom Prison Blues”
Cash kicked off the majority of his concerts with his trademark introduction, “Hello. I’m Johnny Cash,” followed by a performance of “Folsom Prison Blues.” He penned the song in 1955 and famously performed it at the maximum-security Folsom State Prison itself in January 1968.
Cash’s drummer W.S. “Fluke” Holland noted that Cash enjoyed playing prison concerts because “if he did something the audience didn’t like, they couldn’t leave.” (Can you imagine voluntarily leaving a Cash concert? Neither can we.)
2. “Walk the Line”
Cash was open about his struggles with drug addiction and criminal behavior, and “Walk the Line” touches on the theme of his struggle to avoid giving in to these temptations. The song also marks his first big hit and was the title of the critically-acclaimed 2005 biopic starring Joaquin Phoenix as Cash and Reese Witherspoon as his wife, singer-songwriter June Carter Cash.
3. “Ring of Fire”
It’s one the most famous Johnny Cash songs, but “Ring of Fire” was actually written by June Carter Cash. The love song is about more than passion — Carter Cash also drew inspiration from the struggle and pain of being in love with someone who was in the throes of addiction and self-destruction.
4. “Get Rhythm”
Originally released as a B-side to “Walk the Line” in 1956, “Get Rhythm” is a fun, catchy tune about a “shoeshine boy” who uses optimism and rhythm to make his job more bearable. Like many Johnny Cash songs, it’s nearly impossible to not sing along whenever this one plays.
Cash covered this Nine Inch Nails song on his 2002 album American IV: The Man Comes Around. Trent Reznor, who wrote and produced the original version of “Hurt,” said that he was “flattered” the icon wanted to cover his tune but he was also concerned the idea was a bit “gimmicky.” Reznor’s concerns melted away the moment he watched Cash’s music video.
“I pop the video in, and wow… Tears welling, silence, goose bumps… [I felt like] I just lost my girlfriend, because that song isn’t mine anymore… It really made me think about how powerful music is as a medium and art form,” Reznor said. “I wrote some words and music in my bedroom as a way of staying sane, about a bleak and desperate place I was in, totally isolated and alone. [Somehow] that winds up reinterpreted by a music legend from a radically different era/genre and still retains sincerity and meaning — different, but every bit as pure.”
6. “Like A Soldier”
Released in 1994, “Like a Soldier” is a beautifully poetic reflection on Cash’s time in the military. He also recorded a version with Willie Nelson that’s well worth a listen (or 10):
7. “The One on the Right Is on the Left”
This underrated gem humorously tells the story of a folk band that’s torn apart by its members’ differing political views. It’s been described as “tongue in cheek” because, although it pokes fun at mixing politics and music, Cash and his closest friends (most notably Bob Dylan) drew a great deal of inspiration from cultural and political movements.
Covering the Man in Black is no easy feat, but a number of talented artists have risen to the challenge with amazing results.
1. “Ring of Fire” (Lera Lynn)
Lynn takes this iconic song and really makes it her own by using a melancholy, wistful tone. It’s a stark — but absolutely beautiful — contrast to the more upbeat Cash version.
2. “Folsom Prison Blues” (Brandi Carlile)
Carlile must love “Folsom Prison Blues” as much as we do because she frequently performs this song in concert, and she does it justice every single time.
3. “Give My Love to Rose” (Bruce Springsteen)
An inmate at San Quentin Prison asked Cash to bring a message to the prisoner’s wife if he ever happened to be in his hometown. Cash did him one better and wrote an entire song that was inspired by the exchange. It’s one of The Boss’s favorite Johnny Cash songs, and Springsteen’s is one of the best covers out there.
4. “I Still Miss Someone” (Ryan Adams & The Cardinals)
Penned by Cash and his nephew, Roy Cash Jr., “I Still Miss Someone” has been covered by everyone from Stevie Nicks to Jimmy Buffett to Linda Ronstadt. But there’s something special and authentic about Adams’ version that makes the listener feel as though he and Cash were kindred spirits.
5. “Girl from the North Country” (Bob Dylan & Johnny Cash)
Let’s not forget that Cash himself could do justice to the work of other musical icons. An unforgettable standout is this collaboration with Bob Dylan, who wrote “Girl from the North Country” and performed it with Cash.
Bob Dylan is sparing in his praise of other artists, but he perfectly summed up Cash’s importance to the history of both music and America: “He is what the land and country is all about, the heart and soul of it personified and what it means to be here; and he said it all in plain English,” Dylan said after Cash’s death in 2003. “Listen to him, and he will always bring you to your senses.”