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The Stories Behind 10 Johnny Cash Songs

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Johnny Cash, who was born on this day in 1932, 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 the Cash discography up 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. 

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.

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Jim Henson's Labyrinth Is Being Adapted Into a Stage Musical
Henson Company
Henson Company

More than 30 years after its cinematic debut, Labyrinth could be hitting the stage. In an interview with Forbes, Jim Henson's son and Henson Company CEO Brian Henson shared plans to transform the cult classic into a live musical.

While the new musical would be missing David Bowie in his starring role as Jareth the Goblin King, it would hopefully feature the soundtrack Bowie helped write. Brian Henson says there isn't a set timeline for the project yet, but the stage adaptation of the original film is already in the works.

As for a location, Henson told Forbes he envisions it running, "Not necessarily [on] Broadway, it could be for London's West End, but it will be a stage show, a big theatrical version. It’s very exciting."

Labyrinth premiered in 1986 to measly box office earnings and tepid reviews, but Jim Henson's fairytale has since grown into a phenomenon beloved by nostalgic '80s kids and younger generations alike. In the same Forbes interview, Brian Henson also confirmed the 2017 news that a long-anticipated Labyrinth sequel is apparently in development. Though he couldn't give any specifics, Henson confirmed that, "we are still excited about it but the process moves very slowly and very carefully. We're still excited about the idea of a sequel, we are working on something, but nothing that's close enough to say it's about to be in pre-production or anything like that."

While fans eagerly await those projects to come out, they can get their fix when the film returns to theaters across the U.S. on April 29, May 1, and May 2. Don't forget to wear your best Labyrinth swag to the event.

[h/t Forbes]

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10 Wild Facts About Westworld
John P. Johnson, HBO
John P. Johnson, HBO

The hit HBO show about an android farm girl finding sentience in a fake version of the old West set in a sci-fi future is back for a second season. So grab your magnifying glass, study up on Lewis Carroll and Shakespeare, and get ready for your brain to turn to scrambled eggs. 

The first season saw Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) and her robotic compatriots strive to escape bondage as the puppet playthings of a bored society that kills and brutalizes them every day, then repairs them each night to repeat the process for paying customers. The Maze. The Man in Black. The mysteries lurking in cold storage and cantinas. Wood described the first season as a prequel, which means the show can really get on the dusty trail now. 

Before you board the train and head back into the park, here are 10 wild facts about the cerebral, sci-fi hit. (Just beware of season one spoilers!)

1. IT’S NOT THE FIRST TV ADAPTATION OF THE MOVIE.

Though Westworld, the 1973 film written and directed by Michael Crichton, was a hit, its 1976 sequel Futureworld was a flop. Still, the name and concept had enough cachet for CBS to move forward with a television concept in 1980. Beyond Westworld featured Delos head of security John Moore (Jim McMullan) battling against the villainous mad scientist Simon Quaid (James Wainwright), who wants to use the park’s robots to, what else, take over the whole world. It would be a little like if the HBO show focused largely on Luke Hemsworth’s Ashley Stubbs, which just might be the spinoff the world is waiting for.

2. THE ORIGINAL GUNSLINGER HAS A CAMEO.

Ed Harris and Eddie Rouse in 'Westworld'
JOHN P. JOHNSON, HBO

The HBO series pays homage to the original film in a variety of ways, including echoing elements from the score to create that dread-inducing soundscape. It also tipped its ten-gallon hat to Yul Brynner’s relentless gunslinger from the original film by including him in the storage basement with the rest of the creaky old models.

3. QUENTIN TARANTINO, ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER, AND MANY OTHERS COULD HAVE REBOOTED IT.

Speaking of Brynner’s steely, murderous resolve: His performance as the robo-cowboy was one of the foundations for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s turn as the Terminator. Nearly 20 years later, in 2002, Schwarzenegger signed on to produce and star in a reboot of the sci-fi film from which he took his early acting cues. Schwarzenegger never took over the role from Brynner because he served as Governor of California instead, and the reboot languished in development hell.

Warner Bros. tried to get Quentin Tarantino on board, but he passed. They also signed The Cell director Tarsem Singh (whose old West would have been unbelievably lush and colorful, no doubt), but it fell through. A few years later, J.J. Abrams—who had met with Crichton about a reboot back in 1996—pitched eventual co-creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy on doing it as a television series. HBO bought it, and the violent delights finally made it to our screens.

4. IT COSTS $40,000 A DAY TO VISIT THE PARK. (AND THAT’S THE CHEAP PACKAGE.)

Thandie Newton and Angela Sarafyan in 'Westworld'
HBO

In season one, Logan (Ben Barnes) revealed that he’s spending $40,000 a day to experience Westworld. That’s in line with the 1973 movie, where park visitors spent $1000 a day, which lands near $38,000 once adjusted for inflation. Then again, we’re talking about 2052 dollars, so it might still be pricey, but not exorbitant in 2018 terms. But a clever Redditor spotted that $40,000 is the minimum you’d pay; according to the show’s website, the Gold Package will set you back $200,000 a day.

5. BEN BARNES BROKE HIS FOOT AND DIDN’T TELL ANYONE.

Once Upon a Time’s Eion Bailey was originally cast as Logan but had to quit due to a scheduling conflict, so Ben Barnes stepped in … then he broke his foot. The actor hid the injury for fear he’d lose the job, which is why he added a limp as a character detail. “I’m sort of hobbling along with this kind of cowboy-ish limp, which I then tried to maintain for the next year just so I could pretend it was a character choice,” Barnes said. “But really I had a very purple foot … So walking was the hardest part of shooting this for me.”

6. THE CO-CREATORS RICKROLLED FANS OBSESSED WITH UNCOVERING SPOILERS.

Eagle-eyed fans (particularly on Reddit) uncovered just about every major spoiler from the first season early on, which is why Nolan and Joy promised a spoiler video for anyone who wanted to know the entire plot of season two ahead of its premiere. They delivered, but instead of show secrets, the 25-minute video only offered a classy rendition of Rick Astley’s internet-infamous “Never Gonna Give You Up,” sung by Evan Rachel Wood with Angela Sarafyan on piano, followed by 20 minutes of a dog. It was a pitch-perfect response to a fanbase desperate for answers.

7. IT FEATURES AN ANCIENT GREEK EASTER EGG.

Amid the alternative rock tunes hammered out on the player piano and hat tips to classic western films, Westworld also referenced something from 5th century BCE Greece. Westworld, which is run by Delos Incorporated, is designed so that guests cannot die. Delos is also the name of the island where ancient Greeks made it illegal for anyone to die (or be born for that matter) on religious grounds. That’s not the only bit of wordplay with Greek either: Sweetwater’s main ruffian, Hector Escaton (Rodrigo Santoro), gets his last name from the Greek eschaton, meaning the final event in the divine design of the world. Fitting for a potentially sentient robot helping to bring about humanity’s destruction.

8. JIMMI SIMPSON FIGURED OUT HIS CHARACTER’S TWIST BECAUSE OF HIS EYEBROWS.

Evan Rachel Wood and Jimmi Simpson in 'Westworld'
HBO

In season one, the show’s many secrets were kept even from the main cast until the time they absolutely needed to know. Jimmi Simpson, who plays timid theme park neophyte William, had a hunch something was funny with his role because of a cosmetic change.

“I was with an amazing makeup artist, Christian, and he was looking at my face too much,” Simpson told Vanity Fair. “He had me in his chair, and he was just looking at my face, and then he said something about my eyebrows. ‘Would you be cool if we just took a couple hairs out of your eyebrows, made them not quite as arched?’” Guessing that they were making him look more like The Man in Black, Simpson said something to Joy, and she confirmed his hunch. “She looked kind of surprised I’d worked it out,” he said.

9. THE PLAYER PIANO MAY BE AN ALLUSION TO KURT VONNEGUT.

One of the show’s most iconic elements is its soundtrack of alternative rock songs from the likes of Radiohead, The Cure, and Soundgarden redone in a jaunty, old West style. In addition to adding a creepy sonic flavor to the sadistic vacation, they also may wink toward Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel, Player Piano, which deals with a dystopia of automation where machines do everything for humans, leading to an entrenched class struggle. The show’s resonant elements are clear, but Westworld also mentions that the world outside the theme park is one where there’s no unemployment and humans have little purpose. Like The Man In Black (Ed Harris), the protagonist of Player Piano also longs for real stakes in the struggle of life.

10. THERE ARE TWO JESSE JAMES CONNECTIONS.

Anthony Hopkins and Jeffrey Wright in 'Westworld'
HBO

Anthony Hopkins’s character Dr. Robert Ford is an invention for the new series, and he shares a name with the man who assassinated infamous outlaw Jesse James (a fact you may remember from the aptly named movie The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford). The final episode of the first season flips the allusion when Ford is shot in the back of the head, which is exactly how the real-life Ford killed James.

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