My 5 favorite Johnny Cash songs through all space and time
Given my taste and musical sensibilities, I’m a little surprised I resisted getting turned onto Johnny Cash for so long, but I was in this phase where “what everyone likes” equaled “must be overrated,” so I sought out other aural experiences.
I came to Johnny during my New York City years, because he always wound up on the jukebox. I heard enough that I could no longer pretend he was one of those artists who sucked simply because everyone seemed to love him. So, albeit comparatively brief thus far, my love for Johnny has grown strong. It’s for that reason – and also because I figure y’all will have enough to say about other songs which belong on this list – that I will now count down my top five favorite Johnny Cash songs through all space and time, in no particular order. As always, feel free to supplement with your own votes in the comments.
1. Don’t Take Your Guns to Town
Johnny Cash sang a lot of songs about identity and restraint (and, for that matter, outlaws and murder), and this parable about a restless cowboy is my favorite of that bunch. I appreciate the narrative itself, simply as a wild west story, but also find a number of interesting themes. From listening to mom’s advice to practicing restraint in the face of temptation, emotions, and force, to the character’s ultimate death simply because he failed to learn his lesson…it’s a loaded little cowboy song.
2. 25 Minutes to Go
Speaking of murder songs, this one flips the coin a bit and sings from the point of view of a death row inmate. As country songs go, it’s a pretty hard-core statement about the death penalty – not something too many country stars would tackle these days…at least not the ones pouring out of the Nashville machine. It’s classic Johnny-ish ballsy. The counting down could’ve come off a bit too gimmicky, had he done it any differently, but instead it was pure country gold.
I love a good songwriter, but what I love even more is an artist who can pick up an old song that has been played and played again, turned inside out and right again, and can deliver it with such sincere authority as to make it feel as-yet undiscovered. Johnny Cash’s American Recordings are, in my opinion, some of the most remarkable in the history of modern music. He wandered through the building of truly American songs finding doors where everyone else had only seen walls. I was a big fan of Nine Inch Nails for a period (teenage years) and was so sure I knew exactly what this song was about, but oh how wrong I was.
4. Folsom Prison Blues
Would I be forgiven if this tune didn’t make the list? Is there a song that more adequately characterizes Johnny Cash’s public persona than “Folsom Prison Blues”? He did a splendid job of empathizing with society’s greatest rejects and, while this tune is so often associated with some man-in-black badassery, I hear it more as a hand reaching out to those whom society would sooner dispell; a recognition of the validity in the entire expanse of humanity – from its most ensnared to its most free.
This song is just fun. Good music isn’t always about being so sincere and serious. Honestly, though, I saw Gillian Welch and David Rawlings do this in concert once and that was my favorite version. I’d gotten tired of hearing recordings of Johnny and June doing it – it had started to sound a bit saccharine – but Gillian and David revived it. While this tune still reminds me of that cover version, I have to admit Welch & Rawlings wouldn’t have had the song to cover had it not been for Johnny and June.
Okay, your turn…