There is just something amazing about Johnny Cash. He dealt with so many ups and downs in his career, including dealing with addiction, and yet he still managed to come out the other side as one of the biggest music stars of all time.
With countless albums and tracks to choose from, trying to create a list of songs that would lead to the ultimate playlist is not easy. However, that’s what we are about to do, and here is our list of the 25 best Johnny Cash songs of all time.
1. I Walk the Line
This is perhaps the most well-known Johnny Cash song of all time, and it helped push him to stardom way back in 1957. But most people are unaware that he wrote it as a ballad to his wife of the time, but the record label thought it just wasn’t coming across in the right way. So, the tempo was increased, bringing a new sense of warmth to the song. It’s a classic and is the one track you need to listen to from Johnny Cash above all others.
This song was from 2002, and it was a cover of the Nine Inch Nails song of the same name. This was during a time when Cash introduced himself to people who had never paid attention to him or even never heard of him. For Cash, this song was different. He took a more aggressive song and turned it into something far more melodic and thoughtful. It was one of the last tracks he ever produced, but it’s now one of the best he ever made.
3. A Boy Named Sue
From 1969, this song was initially written by someone who wrote stories for children, but Cash took it and added his own sense of swagger to the lyrics. The instrumentals are catchy, and you find yourself paying so much attention to the lyrics as you seek to make sense of them. But overall, we love this as it’s one of the most light-hearted tracks he ever produced, and there’s no doubt it will put a smile on your face.
4. Ring of Fire
Viewed as an iconic country song, it was written by his wife, June Carter, before Cash took it and turned it into one of his most popular songs of all time. It’s dynamic, hooks you in, and has inspired so many other country songs thanks to being viewed as the type of country song all performers should try to match.
5. Man in Black
This song was written in response to a question as to why he always wore black. It has a moody feel to it all, and his deep voice certainly helps to add to that feeling. People sometimes underrate the song while the tempo pulls it along reasonably while Cash gets to work telling his story. It’s just amazing how he managed to make a song out of something so mundane.
6. Don’t Take Your Guns to Town
This was a country chart hit for Cash in 1958 and helped push him along the road to stardom. The song is about a cowboy’s mother telling him to leave his gun at home only for him to be killed, so it’s not a happy topic. However, it shows us how Cash was so good at telling stories through his songs, even from early on.
7. Sunday Morning Coming Down
This track allows Cash to really show how he can tell a story through his music. Written by Kris Kristofferson, it talks about the aftermath of the night before and it ultimately led to Cash having another number one hit on the country charts. But it’s the way Cash guides you through the verses and chorus that hits us, as he is clearly a master at narrating and making you feel part of the story.
8. Folsom Prison Blues
This is a stunning track combining folk songs about prison and trains. Seen as one of the best outlaw songs to have ever been produced, it’s a track that would become synonymous with him throughout his career. It has feeling and emotion throughout while also bringing a sense of darkness to proceedings at the same time.
9. Rusty Cage
This was Cash giving his version of the Chris Cornell song, and boy, does he do things differently. It delivers more of a rock sound for Cash, yet he adds his customary twist to the track. However, it’s how he has taken this rock song, which also had punk influences incorporated into it, and then made it sound like it was always a country song that astounds us. It just shows his talent as a musician, even though this song was produced decades after his debut.
Recorded with June Carter, who would become his wife, this is a classic duet with both switching over as the lead vocalist in order to tell their side of the story in the song. The two sing beautifully together, giving you a glimpse of their love story years before they were married. It’s just beautiful and shows a different side to Johnny Cash.
11. One Piece at a Time
Taken from the album of the same name, this song has a rawness to it, and it’s amazing how you feel as if Cash talks to you rather than sings throughout. Once again, his storytelling ability shines through, and you feel as if you are sitting there listening to a tale being told rather than listening to a song. It’s yet another masterpiece by Cash.
12. All I Do is Drive
From 1974, this song saw Cash dive into a trend of producing songs about trucking. It certainly changes things up from his previous tracks; as a result of the song’s influence, the song’s beat and rhythm sort of chugs along like a truck engine, which undoubtedly leads to a different feel while still making it an exceptionally enjoyable track to listen to.
13. The One On the Right is On the Left
This song was released in 1966 and has a sense of menace surrounding it. It involves Cash poking fun at the array of folk groups that were appearing in the 60s, and it’s clear he is having a dig at them for their politically diverse ways. From that perspective, it’s a fun song to listen to, and it’s certainly different from the usual darkness that can come with his songs.
14. Hey Porter!
If you want to know what this song is about, then the answer is that it’s all about trains. This isn’t unusual as trains would appear in folk songs on a regular basis, and Cash would include them at different points in his career as well. Inspired by experiences of returning from the Air Force, this song is about being homesick but is surprisingly quite upbeat, with Cash delivering the verses to perfection.
15. Cry! Cry! Cry!
This track is actually the very first one that Johnny Cash released back in 1955, leading him to tour with the likes of Elvis after its release. Initially, he produced a gospel song, which was turned down by his label, who told him he had to appear with something else. The outcome of that was this track. Ultimately, it’s a classic country song, and it helped lay the foundation for what would ultimately become a stellar career.
16. Girl from the North Country
We love this song because it features Cash alongside Bob Dylan, which can only lead to a wonderful track. What comes across in this track is the way in which they are both so laid-back when it comes to performing together. Also, the difference in their voices, with Cash as more of a baritone, manages to blend perfectly, adding more emotion and layers to the song.
17. God’s Gonna Cut You Down
This song was released in 2006 and is more of a gospel/folk song than country music. But what we love about it is the blues-inspired riff that largely dominates the track. It’s a rip-roaring song that was sadly one of the last he ever recorded just before he passed away. Even with that sad fact in mind, it still acts as a reminder of how amazing Johnny Cash was as a performer through the decades.
18. I Still Miss Someone
Released in 1958, this track allowed Cash to showcase his more romantic side, but it still has a sense of darkness around it. However, without that dark side, it would not come across as a Johnny Cash song, so don’t expect to become too tearful at it.
19. Brand New Dance
This song is often viewed as something of a follow-up to his early song Jackson, and it’s easy to see why when you dive into the meaning. Also, including June Carter, who was his wife. What stands out is the absolute beauty of the song. The lyrics are meaningful and come across as heartfelt, while the actual vocals add a sense of emotion to the entire thing. As duets go, this is one of the best around.
20. The Long Black Veil
We love this track as it just fits in perfectly with the baritone vocals from Cash. It creates a brooding feel to it, and even though this is just his cover of an already existing track, he adds a new sense of emotion and feeling to it that was just ultimately missing from other versions.
21. Get Rhythm
This track started life as the B-side for I Walk the Line, but it was ultimately so good that people eventually sat up and took notice of it. The song is all about being optimistic even when things are perhaps not as good as you would like. It features Cash singing quite eloquently and has a bit of pace about the song that helps it to really charge by giving you more positive energy than you would expect.
22. Delia’s Gone
This song from 1962 was a must as people see it as something of the dark side of Johnny Cash. While we aren’t so sure about that part, there’s no doubt this track is undoubtedly darker from a mood perspective than we are used to hearing. The song is all about a guy killing his wife and then her haunting him in his prison cell. While that is a depressing topic, Cash delivers in his usual style, making it a beautiful song to listen to.
23. Flesh and Blood
Released in 1970, this was yet another number one hit on the country charts for Cash. Cash talks about nature in the song, which has a melodic feel to it all while you anticipate the customary darkness that tends to come along with his songs. But somehow, it feels as if that never completely happens, and while you miss that aspect, it’s still a lovely track to listen to.
24. Cocaine Blues
This is yet another outlaw song by Cash, and even though the title is provocative, it’s merely his own interpretation of another folk song by the same name. But as always, Cash adds a darker side to things while he seeks to entice you and provoke you into a response through a song that gives a real edge to what he offers as a performer.
25. The Legend of John Henry’s Hammer
Finally, this track is a bit of fun, telling a familiar story of a hero and villain. Seen as more of a ballad, it’s the type of song that bobs along throughout, with you being pulled in as you listen to the subject. At times, it feels as if Cash is talking right at you and telling you the store personally, making it very easy to listen to.
Barry has worked as a freelance writer for over a decade and has developed an eye for detail when it comes to unearthing cool and interesting facts.
His love of music stems from his student days checking out up and coming bands playing in the darkest corners of bars and clubs in Edinburgh.
The love of uncovering something new also remains with him. With an appreciation for music that’s best described as eclectic, his musical tastes range from Eric Clapton to Eminem through to Snow Patrol and Incubus. The memories that music can bring back to the fore is something he tries to portray in his writing.
For him, the voyage of discovery and unearthing something new is what makes this task of writing for MusicGrotto.com so interesting.