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.

Watch Freddie Mercury Sing 'Time Waits for No One' In a Previously Unreleased Video

Steve Wood, Express/Getty Images
Steve Wood, Express/Getty Images

There are a lot of things you probably don't know about Freddie Mercury, the Queen frontman whose life was as colorful as his stage persona. Offstage, the singer was famously enigmatic—a person bandmate Roger Taylor once described as "... shy, gentle, and kind.” Now, fans can catch a never-before-seen glimpse of the singer.

As Variety reports, a previously unreleased video of Mercury singing "Time Waits for No One” was recently dropped by Universal Music. Locked within the company’s vault since the time of its recording more than 30 years ago, in April 1986, the track was produced at Abbey Road Studios as part of Time, a concept album by Dave Clark (of the Dave Clark Five), based on a musical Clark created. Some will note how this version of the song is vastly different from the officially released track, which was an intentional choice.

"Dave Clark had always remembered that performance of Freddie Mercury at Abbey Road Studios from 1986,” Universal Music said in a statement. "The feeling [Clark] had during the original rehearsal, experiencing ‘goosebumps,’ hadn’t dissipated over the decades, and he wanted to hear this original recording—just Freddie on vocals and Mike Moran on piano.”

In an interview with Rolling Stone, Clark recounted the first time he ever saw Mercury perform: "I stood on the wings of the stage, and I was taken aback because this guy came out in a black leotard and I thought, ‘Wow, what’s this? Liza Minnelli?’ And then he opened his mouth and sang. It was unbelievable."

It was several years after witnessing that performance that Clark approached Mercury about joining the production for Time. Upon listening to a tape of "Time Waits for No One” and taking to it, Mercury agreed.

According to Universal Music’s announcement, Clark never lost those goosebumps he felt during that initial listen, and finally found the original footage in the spring of 2018. Now the video is available for listeners everywhere to share in the euphoric experience.

"The nice thing about the film is it’s Freddie on his own without anybody else, and it shows the emotion of the song,” Clark said. "We all know he’s a great singer, but I don’t think he’s been seen on his own with just a piano like this. It makes you realize how good somebody is.”

[h/t Variety]

The Bittersweet Detail You Might Have Missed in Game of Thrones's Final Episode

Gwendoline Christie in "The Iron Throne," Game of Thrones's series finale
Gwendoline Christie in "The Iron Throne," Game of Thrones's series finale
Helen Sloan, HBO

While the final episode of Game of Thrones was no doubt divisive, many of us can agree that Brienne of Tarth deserved better. One of her last scenes in the episode, "The Iron Throne," showed the newly-appointed knight putting aside any anger she might’ve had toward Jaime Lannister to finish his page in the White Book. The part was bittersweet after watching Jaime leave Brienne to be with his sister, Cersei—making us wish things could’ve turned out differently for our favorite knight.

There is one bittersweet detail in that scene that you might’ve missed, however, which makes it all the more sad. According to NME, one Twitter user voiced that they thought they heard the song “I Am Hers, She is Mine” playing in the background, which Game of Thrones composer Ramin Djawadi considers to be the show’s wedding theme. Fans will remember the melody played when Robb Stark married Talisa back in season 2.

Djawadi has since confirmed it is the song, explaining to INSIDER why he included it:

"It's just a hint of what their relationship—if they had stayed together, if he was still alive—what it could have been. What they could have become. That's why I put that in there. I was amazed some people picked up on it. I was hoping people would go, 'Wait a minute, that's from season two.' And that was exactly my intent. I thought it would be very appropriate."

Though it’s only natural to imagine what could’ve happened if Jaime had stayed at Winterfell, let’s not forget that his honor (and character arc) went out the window when he headed back to King’s Landing.

[h/t NME]

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