Johnny Cash has always been an intriguing figure to me. The film version of his life, Walk The Line, doesn't even come remotely close to capturing the aspect of this man with which I truly empathize, and that's his life-long feeling of being unforgivable.
I'm not going to launch into A Cash Biography right here, but I hope to shed some light on what portions of his life, of which I am aware, that shine through in the songs that speak to me in a powerful way.
These songs are my Top 10 Johnny Cash songs that will make the non-Cash fan into someone who can't stop listening to The Man in Black for his tunes, and for the man who sings them.
10. Folsom Prison Blues- Johnny wrote this song in Hamburg, Germany while he was in the Air Force. After viewing a movie one Saturday night, which featured Folsom Prison, he wrote this song. The tempo is upbeat and fun, but the lyrics convey a powerful portion of his psyche.
This was a free man empathizing with the imprisoned, the guilty, and the unforgiven. The lyrics show a man with a sense of outstanding justice as he pointed out that the greedy and selfish, so long as their sins are manifest in business, seem to get by without a scratch in their life.
I identify with this sense of justice because I seem to make myself suffer and pay for my guilt much longer than any natural consequence of my actions. This song is just the tip of the iceberg.
Best line: ...but I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die. When I hear that lonesome whistle, I hang my head and cry.
9. Tennessee Stud- This slow and folksy tune is Johnny connecting with the toughness and heroics of the Old South. He identified strength and power with the golden horse and the man who rode on him.
There's still a theme of justice when he, "rode right back acrost Arkansas" and he "whooped her brother and her whooped her pa" on his way to the ideal life with the girl with the golden hair.
Best line: We pulled our guns, and he fell with a thud, and I rode away on the Tennessee Stud.
8. Get Rhythm- It's got that old rock n' roll feel to it with a good beat. Johnny is still talking about overcoming adversity and injustice in the life of a shoe shine boy.
Best line: It only costs a dime, just a nickel a shoe, it does a million dollars worth of good for you.
7. Cocaine Blues- A cautionary tale in three minutes. A man strung out on cocaine, who kills his woman for cheating on him, gets his just reward. Yet again, justice is the overtone.
Best line: When I was arrested I was dressed in black. They put me on a train and they took me back.
6. Jackson- Is a duet with June Carter Cash. It's a fun song, and lots of people don't like it because it's detailing a couple's spat with threats of going to Jackson to "mess around." It's pretty obvious to me that it's a nommage to all lover's quarrels, who are just trying to make each other jealous.
Best line: June- You're going to Jackson...go comb your hair. Johnny- Honey, I'm gonna snowball Jackson. June- See if I care.
5. Flushed From The Bathroom of Your Heart- It's nothing but a bunch of metaphors for getting dumped. The guitar strumming and the message will make you think of a typical country heart break song.
Best line: Up the elevator of your future, I've been shafted.
4. The Legend of John Henry's Hammer- This is another one of Johnny's songs that turned a piece of regional folklore into national legend through song. John Henry is the black equivalent to the Great Lake's Paul Bunyan. Johnny made the tall tale into one of his most popular live songs.
It's Johnny's way of giving credit where he felt it was due; a way of bringing some justice where there was injustice.
Best line: Can you hoist a jack? Can you lay a track? Can you pick and shovel too? Huh? Listen. This hammer swinger's talking to you.
3. The Man Comes Around- The idea of Johnny's music as "Steady like a train, sharp like a razor" really comes through in this song. His deeply religious upbringing and sense of justice dominates the lyrics. The whole thing is a preamble to The Judgment.
I've said it before, Johnny's reading of Revelation 6:8 is bone-chilling.
Best line: 'Till Armageddon no Shalaam, no Shalom. Then the Father Hen will call his chickens home. The wise men will bow down before the throne. And at his feet they'll cast their golden crowns....when the man comes around.
2. Hurt- This is, without question, Johnny's most powerful recording. It is a cover of Trent Renzor's lyrics, though now not his own after "American Recordings: IV" was released.
Renzor was asked, after seeing Johnny's video for Hurt, what he thought about Cash using his song. Renzor replied, "I wasn't happy about it at first. But now it's clear to me now that I wrote it for Johnny Cash."
The video only adds potency to the song itself, and for a man that had just lost his wife and felt unforgivable, it can bring anyone to tears who is susceptible to the authentic emotion and pain Johnny brings to the delivery.
Best line: What have I become? My sweetest friend. Everyone I know goes away in the end. And you could have it all, my empire of dirt. I will let you down. I will make you hurt.
1. A Boy Named Sue- This is easily my favorite Cash song. His folksy charm is at his best in this one. Johnny was never much of a guitarist, but he was just a natural on stage to tell his stories.
It's simply a great and classic tune with no real point, but Johnny's baggage isn't checked at the door. He identified with it because he both hated and revered his dad. At the end of the song, so does the character he is singing as.
Best line: He was big, and bent, and gray, and old. And I looked at him and my blood ran cold. And I said, My name is Sue. How do you do? Now you're gonna die!
Honorable Mention: God's Gonna Cut You Down, I Got Stripes, Tennessee Flat Top Box, I Walk The Line, and Ring of Fire.
Here's a great character to look at and remind those of us who struggle with the idea of being unforgivable that we're not the only ones, and we can still do great things.
Johnny, I hope you found peace and forgiveness. I'll be singing A Boy Named Sue with you someday.