Johnny Cash would've been 80 this February 26. An iconic figure, Cash played to his strengths. He did not have a great vocal range, but he had an honest worldview and a dedication to the few notes he did reach that gave his career a gravitas not often seen. He was a one-of-a-kind who got his start among many other one-of-a-kinds at Sun Records, where he recorded some of his finest songs.
Reducing his career to just 25 songs and then ranking them is a fool's errand. But it's the format we have. Figure anything on this list is a great place to start. But it is nowhere near definitive. You need entire albums for that. The man's catalog was too grand to be contained here. Let's enjoy and rock our lives away!
25) Jackson: Cash won a Grammy Award for his duet with wife June Carter Cash on this song, written by Jerry Leiber and Billy Edd Wheeler, about a couple who have lost interest in one another and look to the city of Jackson (where is not stated) for better kicks.
24) Get Rhythm: Who would think a track called "Get Rhythm" wouldn't have a drum track? Genius, really. And proof that you don't need Neil Peart or a machine in there to get your groove on! Sadly, there was an album where current-day re-mixers gave Cash a "modern" spin.
23) A Boy Named Sue: This Shel Silverstein novelty track about a boy with a girl's name featured added hoots and hollers above and beyond the San Quentin jail crowd, who truly defined a captive audience.
22) Man In Black: Released in 1971, "Man In Black" is what graduate students would refer to as pure "meta," Cash qua Cash. It's a self-referential tune that shows how Cash was well aware of his appeal and his back-to-basics lifestyle at a time of bright, swinging colors. Sgt. Pepper wasn't everyone's lady. It would inform Rick Rubin's later decisions to produce Cash's final albums with a stark simplicity.
21) Hey Porter: Cash's earliest recordings at Sun Records were at label owner Sam Phillips' insistence to stay away from the gospel music Cash had been playing and to perform what is known now as Cash's early rockabilly style. As a child I thought it was Cash singing to Porter Wagoner (thanks, Pop!), but clearly it's about a railroad porter, as in a guy who carries your luggage.
20) Cry! Cry! Cry!: Along with "Hey Porter," "Cry! Cry! Cry!" was Cash's first release for Sun Records and already he had his signature sound. His voice is higher than it would be in later years -- Leonard Cohen was taking notes! -- but it still evokes an image of a man who deserves to have his face etched into music's Mount Rushmore. (Mount Rockmore?)
19) So Doggone Lonesome: As you see from this list, I'm not shy about taking Cash's Sun output. There is something about the lean and mean sound that makes a greater impact than the fleshed out productions of what figures as his mid-period. Songs with "doggone" in them deserve to be singled out.
18) Big River: Guitarist Luther Perkins helped ensure that Cash's earliest recordings didn't miss the lack of a drummer. In fact, it was one less guy to pay.
17) I Still Miss Someone: Originally recorded in 1958, and a constant live staple, "I Still Miss Someone" has been covered by many artists over the years. Pretty good considering the song was originally a B-side. Someone found the time to play B-sides!
16) I See A Darkness: Written by Will Oldham, aka Bonnie "Prince" Billy, "I See A Darkness" is a fine tune that Rick Rubin imagined Johnny Cash could sing. And he was right. Oldham's version was ghostly, but Cash's version is the reaper himself taking names.
15) Dark As A Dungeon: Another fine song by Merle Travis written about how much fun it is to work in a coal mine. The only thing that could possible make it better would be if we could still send children to work there. They would surely enjoy it more than playing those sedentary video games.
14) Wanted Man: Bob Dylan's collaboration with Cash, "Wanted Man," got its airing, appropriately enough on Cash's At San Quentin live album, where the prisoners could, uh, relate in much the same way that non-incarcerated music fans relate to Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Free Bird."
13) Girl From The North Country: Johnny singing "Girl From the North Country" with Bob Dylan is one of those weird moments of demented synergy, where two solo artists agree to play nice for a moment and then sing at one another as much as with. It's a fine strategy, since who wants to be on a team anyway?
12) Wreck of the Old '97: This tune about a railroad accident has been covered by everyone from Johnny and Hank Snow and the Louvin Brothers to Nine Pound Hammer! The song went through a copyright battle as various people remembered writing it. Cash was the right man to cover it since his band often sounded like a railroad train threatening to go out of control.
11) Daddy Sang Bass: Back when men were men they sang bass and Mamas sang tenor. That's right before your Bobby Plants and their Led Zeppelins and their long hair turned this fine country against the 4-H Clubs of America and turned our kids into…oh, wait, this is a song about remembering your lost family members who once soothed you with the power of music. Someone get me a tissue. I hate when they make me cry.
10) Ballad of A Teenage Queen: Written by Jack Clement about a small town girl who's part of a new craze called "teenager." No more coal mines, no more war years, just livin' off the fat of the land and tending to the rabbits!
9) Luther Played The Boogie: Back in time, it wasn't uncommon for musicians to sing about themselves or their bandmates. While Bo Diddley was bringing it to Jerome, Johnny was praising the crazy sound that his guitarist, Luther Perkins, brought to the band. So when's Pearl Jam writing "Rough Stone Gossard Goes Riding"?
8) The Ballad of Ira Hayes: Written by List of the Day's "Folksinger of the Day" Peter LaFarge, "The Ballad of Ira Hayes" was recorded by Cash, Patrick Sky and Bob Dylan. It tells the story of one of the five Marines and one Navy man who raised the flag on Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima during World War II, the last and greatest of the world wars of the 20th Century, currently available on video from your local cable provider.
7) Hurt: Producer Rick Rubin turned Johnny onto the Nine Inch Nails and Johnny responded with a performance that explained why he's Johnny Cash. By the time, Johnny was done, "Hurt" was a Johnny Cash song.
6) Rock Island Line: This Lead Belly tune has made the rounds, becoming a huge skiffle hit for Lonnie Donegan that inspired future Beatles to try their hand at this music thing. It appears, like many of the songs on this list, on Cash's debut album, Johnny Cash With His Hot and Blue Guitar, which was also the first LP issued by Sam Phillips' Sun Records label.
5) I Heard That Lonesome Whistle Blow: Credited to Jimmie Davis (who was twice Governor of Louisiana) and Hank Williams, "I Heard That Lonesome Whistle Blow" features two motifs that were very popular with Cash, trains and jail.
4) The Long Black Veil: This country ballad, originally recorded by Lefty Frizzell, has been covered by many artists, none better than Johnny Cash, who made it a key component of his Folsom Prison set. The song itself is a miniseries in three minutes, with the man refusing to admit he was in the arms of his best friend's wife on the night of a murder and thereby executed wrongfully. Murder was the case they gave him!
3) Ring of Fire: Written by his wife, June Carter, and Merle Kilgore, and originally recorded by June's sister, Anita Carter, "Ring of Fire" went on to become another of Cash's many signature tunes and a number one country hit in 1963. Then it became an anthem for Social Distortion!
2) I Walk The Line: It's truly amazing how many performers write their best and most enduring songs at the beginning of their careers. Cash said he wrote the lyrics in twenty minutes. It was his first number one country hit.
1) Folsom Prison Blues: "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash" and into this song the concert began and a great live album At Folsom Prison was made. Long before his legendary visit to the actual prison, he cut this tune at Sun Records in Memphis with the Tennessee Two.