Top 10 Johnny Cash Songs for Your Country Playlist

Top 10 Johnny Cash Songs for Your Country Playlist

Posted on June 15 by Julie Chadwick in Non-fiction, Recent Releases
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You've heard the hits, but do you know the stories behind them? Here are my top 10 favourite songs by the one and only man in black, Johnny Cash.

Click the song title to listen to the song on Spotify.

  1. Five Feet High and Rising – When this early Johnny Cash hit came onto a jukebox in London Ontario it marked the first time Saul Holiff had ever heard the singer’s music. Written by Johnny about a flood on the Cash family property in Dyess, Arkansas, Saul later remarked, ''That's the way he approached putting a song together. 'Five Feet High and Rising' ­— ­that's what they lived. Or a song about cotton, that's what they lived. People didn't really realize that,” to reporter Ralph Willsey in 1998.
                                              

  2. Folsom Prison Blues – Though the song is widely loved, lesser-known is the fact that Johnny Cash lifted the tune for this song (and some of its lyrics) from singer/songwriter Gordon Jenkins’s “Crescent City Blues.” Though first recorded in 1955, it wasn’t until it was released as part of Cash’s first live prison record in 1968 that Jenkins noticed the similarity and filed a lawsuit. It was Johnny’s manager Saul who then quietly smoothed over the issue and arranged for the payment of a seventy-five-thousand-dollar settlement—on the condition that the matter not be disclosed publicly.
                                        

  3. Ring of Fire – This marked the first bona fide hit Cash had with his Canadian manager, though it was not a song in which Saul personally had much involvement. Writing home to his then-girlfriend Barbara Robinson about it in June of 1963, Saul remarked that it was, “a hit, an unqualified one. Sales are outstanding and the song is high on the pop charts in every trade paper.”
                                              

  4.  It Ain’t Me Babe – Written by Bob Dylan, it was an interesting choice for an early Johnny Cash/June Carter duet, given that the lyrics­—at least according to veteran music writer Robert Shelton—were “a rejection of the mythology of true love”. Saul wrote to Johnny at the time to impressed upon him that of the two new songs on his new record, “Babe” was the one he and Barbara felt would go big, and true to prediction, it went to the top five of the country singles charts.
     
  5. If I Were A Carpenter – This is one of two songs it is debated was sung as a duet after Johnny Cash’s 1968 proposal to June Carter in Saul’s hometown of London, Ontario. Various audience members that were interviewed for The Man Who Carried Cash remember it differently—some say it was the couple’s other famous number, “Jackson”. Whatever the case, it was a poignant moment for all members of their traveling music troupe.
                                              
     
  6. Big Bad John by Jimmy Dean – Not a Cash song, but emcee and cowboy performer Johnny Western remembers this tune coming on the car radio immediately after Johnny and his entourage of performers played at the Harman Air Force base in Newfoundland in the fall of 1961. The troupe were on a major tour of Eastern Canada that was organized by Saul. It marked a crucial point in both men’s careers, as it was during this tour that Johnny officially asked Saul to be his manager.
     
  7. A Boy Named Sue – The popularity of this song — penned by Playboy cartoonist and children’s author Shel Silverstein ­— was what launched Johnny into his status as an international superstar. The way Saul tells it, the song got into Johnny’s hands when the two men were striding through O’Hare airport and randomly ran into Silverstein, who handed over the lyrics on a crumpled sheet of paper. It became the biggest hit of Cash’s career at that time.
                                              
     
  8. Amen – Johnny was a huge fan of gospel music, and was set to perform the hymn “Amen” on the television show Shindig in January of 1965. In the midst of heavy drug abuse, Johnny couldn’t remember the words to the song during taping, so he had to return the next day to record it again. Producer Jack Good later told writer Steve Turner that it took two hours to tape one song, and as a backup plan they brought in dancers “so there was somewhere to go if he was really out of it.” The end result was a success, all things considered.
     
  9. Don’t Take Your Guns To Town — When Johnny performed a sparse version of this song on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1959, it so enamoured CBC producer Stan Jacobson that when Saul approached him years later to produce a special on Johnny Cash for the Canadian network, Jacobson jumped at the opportunity. The Legend of Johnny Cash aired on March 24, 1968, and was so popular that it was arguably the precursor for ABC’s The Johnny Cash Show, which then served to launch the singer to stratospheric heights of popularity. (Fun fact: one of Saul and Johnny’s conditions for the show was that Jacobson be brought on as a writer. He later also became one of the show’s producers.)
                          
     
  10. Hey Porter — In a 2003 interview with Vancouver talk radio show CKNW, Saul named this as one of his favourite Cash songs, though he never said why. It’s an interesting choice. What started out as a poem became helped get Cash his first record contract and was Cash’s first recording with Sun Records in 1955.
                          
     

Julie Chadwick

Posted by Kendra on July 19, 2016
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Julie Chadwick

Julie Chadwick is an award-winning journalist and editor whose work has appeared in the National Post, Vancouver Sun, Victoria Times-Colonist and Vice. She lives in Nanaimo, B.C.