Johnny Cash's 15 greatest songs, ranked

29 April 2024, 16:53

Johnny Cash – Songwriter album trailer

By Mayer Nissim

We do the impossible and round up the very best songs of Johnny Cash's immense career.

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When Johnny Cash died in 2003, he was in the middle of one of the greatest comebacks in music history.

After some years of limited success, his American series collaboration with Rick Rubin put him back where he belonged at the very top of the pile.

Given how much work Johnny and Rick had done together, even his death couldn't stop the splurge of incredible music, with two posthumous American albums followed by more archive-raiding to feed the desire for more and more Cash.

That's included Out Among the Stars drawn from shelved 1980s sessions and Songwriter from his 1990s demos, adding up to over 70 proper studio albums, and much more besides.

So picking out just 15 of his very greatest songs is no easy task, but it's been a thoroughly enjoyable challenge. How does it stack up to your rankings?

  1. Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord)

    Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord)

    Johnny Cash was a masterful songwriter. So many tracks on this list were written or co-written by the man himself, but he was also a peerless interpreter of existing work.

    We don't just mean the more modern standards (and songs he made standards) on the American series, but music throughout his career, and especially the old classics, hymns, gospel songs and the like.

    Among them was his take on this old African-American spiritual, composed in the 19th century, first recorded by Cash and the Carter Family as the B-side for 'Peace in the Valley' in 1962, but popping up on countless compilations since then.

  2. A Boy Named Sue

    Johnny Cash - A Boy Named Sue (Live at San Quentin, 1969)

    So much of Cash's back catalogue has a reputation for being a bit seriousface. That's what comes with being dubbed "The Man in Black", I suppose.

    But he most definitely had a lighter side, and as well as his own witty lyrics, he had no problem singing tracks like Shel Silverstein's 'A Boy Named Sue'.

    After the quickest glance, the song was added to the setlist for Cash's shows at San Quentin (you can even see him reading the words of a lyric sheet on video footage)

    It went down a storm, becoming Johnny's biggest ever US hit with three weeks at number two (and only The Rolling Stones 'Honky Tonk Woman' keeping it off the top).

  3. Hey Porter

    Hey Porter!

    After he was signed by Sun records, Johnny Cash presented them with his first song for the label, the cheeky 'Hey Porter', the first song he ever recorded with the Tennessee Two (aka guitarist Luther Perkins and bass player Marshall Grant).

    The label weren't impressed and insisted Cash come back with something else, so he knocked up up 'Cry! Cry! Cry!' overnight (more on that later), with 'Hey Porter' relegated to the B-side.

    'Cry!" may have the edge, but this snappy story of a rail ride to Tennessee is still a key and classic part of the Cash back catalogue.

  4. Get Rhythm

    Johnny Cash- Get Rhythm (Official-Unofficial) Music Video

    Another witty slice of Cash songwriting, and another song that first emerged as the B-side, this time 'I Walk the Line' on the 1956 Sun single.

    "Get rhythm," Cash urged, "When you get the blues" before imploring you to "Get a rock and roll feeling in your bones", underlining that country element that is all-too-often overlooked in what made rock 'n' roll the mashup genre it really was.

    It's been much covered over the years, including by the likes of Ry Cooder and Dr Feelgood.

  5. Highway Patrolman

    Highway Patrolman

    In a long career with plenty of twists and turns, one of the most interesting Johnny Cash moments was his 1983 Columbia album Johnny 99.

    Two of its ten tracks were Bruce Springsteen covers, both taken from the previous year's stripped-back Nebraska album. A bold decision.

    A country jam take on 'Johnny 99' gave Cash's album its title, but it was his more faithful version of 'Highway Patrolman' that was the key pick, perhaps showcasing that ear for the perfect cover and ability for a perfect arrangement that would bring his later renaissance.

  6. Cry! Cry! Cry!

    Johnny Cash - Cry, Cry, Cry with Lyrics

    With 'Hey Porter' knocked back by the tough taskmasters at Sun, Johnny Cash was asked for something the label could really sell. If that happened to us, we'd be in our rooms sobbing for the rest of the week.

    Not so Johnny Cash, who went home, wrote 'Cry! Cry! Cry!', performed it for Sam Phillips the following day and had it out in the shops as his debut single the following year.

  7. Man in Black

    Johnny Cash - Man in Black (The Best Of The Johnny Cash TV Show)

    This self-mythologising protest song was the title track of Cash's 1971 Man in Black album and explained the artist's black-clad stage image.

    "I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down / Livin' in the hopeless, hungry side of town."

    He pledges to keep on wearing black until "we start to make a move to make a few things right" and "things are brighter"... we probably don't need to point out that even on his dying day, Johnny Cash remained the Man in Black.

  8. Big River

    Johnny Cash - Big River

    This Sun Records single from 1958 has been covered by everyone from Bob Dylan and The Grateful Dead to Tim Buckley and Hank Williams Jr over the years, but it's Johnny Cash's hit version we always go back to.

    The story of the pursuit of love lost along the Mississippi River ("A freighter said she's been here, but she's gone, boy, she's gone"), marries clever wordplay ("batter down by Baton Rouge"... "cavorting in Davenport") with real emotion and sense of place.

  9. Jackson (with June Carter)

    Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash - Jackson (The Best Of The Johnny Cash TV Show)

    You simply can't tell the Johnny Cash story without talking about June Carter Cash.

    A star in her own right and member of the Carter Family musical group, June married Johnny in 1968 (her third marriage, his second), and they were together until her death in May 2003, just months before Johnny died.

    They collaborated countless times even before they married, and our pick of the bunch is this call-and-response 1967 cover of Billy Edd Wheeler and Jerry Leiber's song.

  10. Girl From The North Country (with Bob Dylan)

    Bob Dylan with Johnny Cash - Girl from the North Country (Official Audio)

    One of Bob Dylan's first true classics, the original solo version of 'Girl From The North Country' was one of many standouts on Bob's second studio album The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan.

    Bob has never been one to keep his songs stuck in amber and enjoyed playing with their arrangements and performance. One of the most successful reworkings was turning 'Girl From The North Country' into a duet and the opening track of his 1969 country album Nashville Skyline.

    It's got Bob's best version of his country croon, perfectly matching Cash's own tone.

  11. Folsom Prison Blues

    Johnny Cash - Folsom Prison Blues (Live)

    "I shot a man in Reno / Just to watch him die" is up there as the cruellest, coldest, greatest lyrics in the history of music.

    Written in 1953, and released as a single in 1955, 'Folsom Prison Blues' was inspired by the movie Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison and became Johnny's traditional set opener for years to come.

    He eventually performed the song at the actual Folsom Prison on January 13, 1968, for a performance captured on the At Folsom Prison live album.

  12. Highwayman (with The Highwaymen)

    The Highwaymen - Highwayman

    Johnny Cash was part of the Million Dollar Quartet supergroup alongside Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins for that historic jam session in 1956.

    He was also part of a more stable supergroup later on in his career when he joined forces with fellow outlaw country icons Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson for a trio of albums released as The Highwaymen.

    Their finest moment was the song that inspired their name, a cover of Jimmy Webb's 1977 song, that had also been covered by Glen Campbell, before it found the perfect performers who took it to the next level.

  13. Ring Of Fire

    Johnny Cash - Ring Of Fire (Live)

    Written by June Carter with Merle Kilgore, 'Ring of Fire' was first recorded by June's Carter Family sister Anita for her album Folk Songs Old and New.

    Johnny claimed to have had a dream where he heard the song accompanied by mariachi horns, as heard on Herb Alpert's contemporaneous 'The Lonely Bull'.

    So even though it was nothing like his usual vibe, that's how he recorded his own take a few months later, which became a country chart-topper and one of his best-known and best-loved songs.

  14. Hurt

    Johnny Cash - Hurt

    We've spoken time and again about the quality of the American series, and truly all six albums and Unearthed outtakes need to be listened to.

    A mix of covers, originals, reworkings and brand-new tracks, the albums stripped everything right down to the most basic arrangements to prove that the years hadn't diminished Cash's emotion one little bit.

    And the pick of the bunch was this cover of Nine Inch Nails' 'Hurt' from American IV: The Man Comes Around, which had originally featured on the industrial band's 1994 masterpiece The Downward Spiral.

    Cash's version was truly beautiful – often cited as maybe the best cover version of anything ever, and we're not going to argue.

    The video directed by Mark Romanek is one of the finest music promos in the history of the format. We dare you to watch it and not be in floods of tears by the end.

    "I pop the video in, and... wow," said NIN's Trent Reznor. "Tears welling, silence, goose-bumps... Wow. I just lost my girlfriend, because that song isn't mine anymore."

  15. I Walk The Line

    Johnny Cash - I Walk the Line (Live in Denmark)

    So many songs could have topped this list, but we've gone for one of Cash's own, produced by Sam Phillips for Sun Records back in 1956 as the best and brightest example of the classic "boom-chicka-boom" sound that made him a superstar.

    Phillips convinced Cash to turn his original slow ballad about resisting temptation and staying true to his wife o Vivian Liberto into something a bit more up-tempo and it was absolutely the right decision.

    The marriage didn't last, but the song most definitely did, appearing on pretty much all his best-ofs and eventually lending its name to the excellent 2005 Cash biopic Walk The Line starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon.