The Stories Behind 10 Famous Johnny Cash Songs

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Johnny Cash once wrote, “I love songs about horses, railroads, land, judgment day, family, hard times, whiskey, courtship, marriage, adultery, separation, murder, war, prison, rambling, damnation, home, salvation, death, pride, humor, piety, rebellion, patriotism, larceny, determination, tragedy, rowdiness, heartbreak and love. And Mother And God."

That sums up Cash's discography pretty well. He covers at least 20 of those themes in the 10 songs below. Here are the backstories behind some of the Man in Black's most famous songs—and maybe a little insight into why he loved those topics so much.

1. "Man in Black"

In the song, Cash explains that he always wears black to performances and public appearances because of social injustices, “just so we’re reminded of the ones who are held back.” It’s a great story, but it’s not 100 percent true. In 2002, he told Larry King that black was his signature color simply because he felt most comfortable in it, although he preferred light blue in summer. “You walk into my clothes closet. It’s dark in there,” he said.

Rolling Stone wrote that the inky wardrobe was also helpful when it came to hiding dirt and dust in the early touring days.

2. "Chicken in Black"

Cash didn’t always wear black. In the video above, he’s dressed in bright yellow, accessorized with a powder blue cape.

Sound a little off-brand? It was. In the early ‘80s, Cash felt that Columbia, his record label, was ignoring him and failing to promote his music properly. He decided to record a song so awful that it would force Columbia to cut his contract early. The plan worked, but it came at a price. “He was kind of mocking and dismantling his own legacy,” daughter Rosanne later said. Here’s a sampling of the lyrics, in case the video is too painful to watch: “I put your brain in a chicken last Monday, he’s singing your songs and making lots of money, and I’ve got him signed to a 10-year recording contract.”

3. "I Walk the Line"

Written in just 20 minutes, Cash’s (arguably) greatest hit was intended as a reminder to himself to stay faithful to his first wife, Vivian, while he was on the road opening for Elvis in the mid-1950s. "It was kind of a prodding to myself to 'Play it straight, Johnny,'" he once said. According to other interviews, that wasn’t the song’s only meaning: He also meant it as an oath to God. Although Sam Phillips from Sun Records said that he wasn’t interested in gospel songs, Johnny was able to sneak “I Walk the Line” past him with the story about being true to his wife.

4. "A Boy Named Sue"

In 1969, Johnny and June threw a party at their house in Hendersonville. As you might imagine, it was a veritable who’s-who of music: Bob Dylan, Graham Nash, Joni Mitchell, Kris Kristofferson, and Shel Silverstein. Everyone debuted a new song at the party—Dylan sang “Lay Lady Lay,” Nash did “Marrakkesh Express,” Kristofferson played “Me and Bobby McGee,” and Mitchell sang “Both Sides Now.” Silverstein, who was a songwriter in addition to an author of children’s books, debuted “A Boy Named Sue.”

When the party was over, June encouraged Johnny to take the lyrics to “Sue” on the plane the next day. They were headed to California to record the famous live At San Quentin album. Johnny wasn’t sure he could learn the lyrics fast enough, but he did—and the inmates went crazy for it. They weren’t the only ones: "A Boy Named Sue" quickly shot to the top of the charts. And not just the country charts—it held the #2 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 for three weeks.

The song was originally inspired by a male friend of Silverstein’s with a somewhat feminine name—Jean Shepherd, the author of A Christmas Story.

5. "Ring of Fire"

The story behind this one depends on who you believe. The Carter-Cash family has always maintained that June and guitar player Merle Kilgore co-wrote the song about June falling in love with Johnny despite being worried about his drug and alcohol problem.

But according to Johnny’s first wife, Vivian, June had nothing to do with “Ring of Fire.” “The truth is, Johnny wrote that song, while pilled up and drunk, about a certain private female body part,” Vivian wrote in her autobiography. She claims he gave June credit for writing the song because he thought she needed the money.

Either way, June’s sister Anita originally recorded the song. After Johnny had a dream that he was singing it with mariachi horns, he recorded it that way. (Several years later, a hemorrhoid ointment tried to turn it into their jingle.)

6. "The Man Comes Around"

“Ring of Fire” isn’t the only time Johnny had a dream that inspired a song. In his later years, Cash had a dream that he walked into Buckingham Palace and encountered Queen Elizabeth just sitting on the floor. When she saw him, the Queen said, “Johnny Cash, you’re like a thorn tree in a whirlwind!” Two or three years later, Cash remembered the dream, decided that the reference must be a biblical one, and wrote what he called “my song of the apocalypse”—“The Man Comes Around.”

7. "Hey Porter"

This one is another early song inspired by Vivian. From the summer of 1951 through the summer of 1954, Cash was deployed in Germany with the Air Force. At the end of three years, he turned down the option to re-enlist, feeling homesick for his girl and his home. On the journey back from Germany, he penned “Hey Porter” about the excitement and relief he felt to finally be coming home.

8. "Folsom Prison Blues"

After seeing Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison, Cash was inspired to write a song about it. Too bad that song already existed as “Crescent City Blues,” written by Gordon Jenkins.

Jenkins sued for copyright infringement in 1969 and received $75,000. Cash later admitted that he heard the song when he was in the Air Force, but borrowing the tune and some of the lyrics was subconscious; he never meant to rip Jenkins off. Oh, but the famous “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die” line—that was all Johnny.

9. "Cry! Cry! Cry!"

After Cash returned home from the Air Force and signed with Sun Records, he gave Sam Phillips “Hey Porter.” Phillips asked for a ballad for the B-side, so Cash went home and quickly wrote “Cry! Cry! Cry!” literally overnight. It became his first big hit—not bad for an afterthought.

10. "Get Rhythm"

Though “Get Rhythm” eventually became the B-side for “I Walk the Line,” Cash originally wrote it for Elvis. It might have been recorded by Presley, but when he went to RCA, Sam Phillips refused to let him take “Get Rhythm” with him.

This article originally ran in 2014.

The Bus From Spice World is Now an Airbnb Rental

Razzladazzla, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

This summer, Airbnb is giving 1990s kids the chance to fulfill their dream of living like a Spice Girl. As People reports, the Spice Bus, made famous by the 1997 movie Spice World, has been converted into an Airbnb rental—and it's open to guests for only a few nights in June.

After shuttling Baby, Sporty, Scary, Posh, and Ginger Spice around London in Spice World, the Spice Bus fell into disrepair. The movie prop was neglected for years until the Island Harbour Marina on the Isle of Wight purchased it and renovated it to its former glory. It went on display on the island in July 2014.

Now, the bus is moving back to London as a quirky vacation rental. On June 14 and June 15, up to three guests per night will sleep over in the bus at its temporary location at Market Square in Wembley Park. There they'll be made to feel like pop princesses (or princes). The interior has been decked out with Union Jack upholstery to match the outside paint job and zebra-print carpeting that would make Mel B proud. There are also disco balls, a neon sign that says "Girl Power," and nostalgic goodies like scrunchies and CDs.

Rates start at $129 per night, but the two announced dates have already been filled. Spice Girls fans looking to relive their childhood shouldn't give up hope: More rental dates may open starting May 22. After the bus's stint in London, it will return to its home on the Isle of Wight at the end of June.

[h/t People]

10 Amazing Variations on the Game of Thrones Theme Song

Jerome Flynn and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau in Game of Thrones
Jerome Flynn and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau in Game of Thrones
Helen Sloan, HBO

Game of Thrones has an iconic credits sequence, featuring a memorable theme song composed by Emmy Award-winning artist Ramin Djawadi. It's weirdly catchy—so much so that other artists have found increasingly unique ways to cover it over the years.

1. NESKeytar

Greig Stewart combined a Guitar Hero controller with an old school Nintendo to create the NESKeytar he used in this cover. Bonus: The NES still works as a separate gaming system!

2. Floppy Drives

Eight floppy drives playing in sync. The geekery is extreme.

3. Violin

A beautiful electric/acoustic violin version by Jason Yang.

4. Hard Rock

Roger Lima overdubs some metal riffage, drums, electric bass, and several layers of electric guitar.

5. Metal

Charlie Parra del Riego shreds.

6. Classical Guitar

Five guitar tracks!

7. Solo Piano

Bonus geek cred if you know the answer to his opening question.

8. 8-bit

YouTube commenter skinke says it best: "No? 'Game of Tones'? That's a missed opportunity if I've ever seen one."

9. Piano and Violin

Lara, coverer of video game music, takes a shot at this one, purely by ear. Wow.

10. Guitar, Cello, Drums, Shaker, and Flute

Talent show players for the win!

This post has been updated for 2019.

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