Happy Birthday, Man in Black

Johnny Cash was the first musician who made me listen past the “I don’t do Country” reflex that I and my friends developed growing up in the Bay Area in the 60s and 70s.  Country was music we associated with everything we thought we weren’t, and we were just too damn cool for any plunketa plunketa stuff.

Cash blew all that away.  He could flat out bring it — sex, bad boys, terrible loneliness, comedy, whatever.  And the songs have such wonderful shape, two and half minutes or so with neither note nor word wasted.

So in honor of the day when he would have been 81, how about some impossibly young Johnny:

Here’s one reflecting a bit more experience, in company with June Carter, :


A classic:

And one more: late Cash, with a voice so devoid of illusion it could scare the flame out of the devil:

Lots more there, of course; Cash would take on any kind of song that spoke to him, and sing with anyone who had the stuff to sing with him. Line up your own favorites in the comments.

99 replies
  1. 1
    👽 Martin says:

    Ok, but you MUST put the most iconic photo of Johnny Cash up there – at least on this blog.

    And you also must link to his cover of Hurt.

  2. 2
    Gravenstone says:

    @👽 Martin: Was just going to link to Hurt. That video has always been so poignant to me, because he lost June only a few months after it came out.

  3. 3
    Belafon (formerly anonevent) says:

    How many times will we list “Hurt”?

  4. 4
    srv says:

    Geez, I’m not even an old fart and I never saw Cash Country as “Country”

    Whole other animal.

  5. 5

    his last album, made after quite a dead period, was fabulous. It was engineered by Rick Rubin(I think that’s name) a punk rocker.thrasher guy. And 9inchNails Rezor song was awesome.

  6. 6
    Tom Levenson says:

    @👽 Martin: @Gravenstone: @Belafon (formerly anonevent):

    I was going to use Hurt as the last in the series of videos, but (a) it’s the first one we all think of as Johnny’s last word and

    (b) I wanted to have one traditional number in there, and “God’s gonna cut you down” fits the bill.

    Plus, I figured that the crowd would come up with all the essentials anyway ; )

  7. 7
    Irving says:

    @Belafon (formerly anonevent): Many, many, many times. It’s not easy to take a NiN song and make it bleed with pain even harder than what Reznor put into it. Unless you’re Johnny, who was doing that sort of thing when Trent was in diapers.

    Okay, how about “Mercy Seat“> Take Nick Cave and make him righteous, if you dare.

  8. 8
  9. 9
    Calouste says:

    I think that when I end up in hell, the soundtrack will be country music 24/7, and the only Cash in there will be some overwrought covers.

  10. 10
    cckids says:

    @👽 Martin:

    And you also must link to his cover of Hurt.

    This. You have to watch the video, as well, it tears at your heart.

    I’ve read that when Reznor saw it, he said Cash had “taken my song away”. It does seem to be a definitive version.

    I cannot believe he’d have only been 81 today, my god, he looked way older than that the last few years of his life.

  11. 11
  12. 12
    Mark S. says:

    @Omnes Omnibus:

    Girl from the North Country (With Dylan)

    Love that song. Also love

    One Piece at a Time

  13. 13
    Belafon (formerly anonevent) says:

    @cckids: According to the wikipedia entry for Hurt, Reznor said:

    I pop the video in, and wow… Tears welling, silence, goose-bumps… Wow. [I felt like] I just lost my girlfriend, because that song isn’t mine anymore…

  14. 14
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @Mark S.: Girl from the North Country is just haunting, and it works so well as a duet for those two – better than Dylan’s solo version.

  15. 15
    cckids says:


    F. Y. W. P.

    Over & out.

  16. 16
    Just Some Fuckhead says:

    When I was little, I wanted to be Johnny Cash someday. Didn’t know at the time you couldn’t be someone else.

    The man could sing anything and many, no most, of his covers were better than the originals. And check out the writing on The Man Comes Around. It gives me chills.

  17. 17
    kdaug says:

    The Man Comes Around

    Ain’t religious, but that shit still gets me.

  18. 18
    Suffern ACE says:

    @Mark S.: yep. I’ll post a link to one piece, too. Just because the thread will get soo heavy with Hurt links it might fall over. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v.....038;sns=em

  19. 19
    Jim, Foolish Literalist says:

    @cckids: I’ve read that when Reznor saw it, he said Cash had “taken my song away”.

    Good for him, just like Otis Redding and Aretha and Respect. Bono once said something about Johnny Cash being like an oak tree that sings. I am not often given to quoting Bono, but that seems apt. This duet with Roseanne also gets to me:
    September, When It Comes

    I cannot move the mountain now
    I can no longer run
    I cannot be
    Who I was then
    In a way
    I never was

  20. 20
    YellowJournalism says:

    My grandma used to play his gospel music in her car. She also played a lot of his more popular songs. It had a wonderful, soothing sound to a child who didn’t know the pain and passion behind it.

  21. 21
    James Gary says:

    I love all his recordings with Rick Rubin, but for me the peak will *always* be his cover of Will Oldham’s “I See A Darkness.”


  22. 22
    cckids says:

    @Belafon (formerly anonevent): That’s it. Its really something, when the songwriter says that about your version of his song.

  23. 23
  24. 24
    Quaker in a Basement says:

    @Omnes Omnibus: It was that duet with Dylan that first got me to give Cash a chance. It was god-awful to listen to, but all the same, I was impressed that he did it.

  25. 25
    SuzieC says:

    A friend of mine is friends with a former band member of Nine Inch Nails. I was able to talk to him about Hurt when it came out. I said to him that it made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. He said that Trent Reznor thought Johnny’s version was awesome.

  26. 26
    Tom Levenson says:

    Just to add a couple to the thread. I Hung My Head gets me every time.

    Concur with all above, and I’ll add this one, because I love the contrast between Willie’s thinner voice and Cash’s no-compromise baritone.

    Keep ’em coming.

  27. 27
    Johnnybuck says:

    I saw the “Hurt” video at the country music hall of fame exhibit for Johnny Cash memorabilia and i literally broke down in tears.

    man ought to be on Mt. Rushmore

  28. 28
    Democrat Partisan Asshole says:

    Ain’t No Grave.

  29. 29
    Mnemosyne says:


    It’s not easy to take a NiN song and make it bleed with pain even harder than what Reznor put into it.

    It’s the difference between a 30-year-old and a 70-year old singing, “Everyone I know goes away in the end.” One has, shall we say, more of a ring of truth and experience to it.

    And “Man in Black” is, of course, the modern Christian call to action. I don’t know how anyone who calls themselves a Christian could hear it and not feel compelled to rush out and work for social justice.

  30. 30
    Disinterested observer says:

    His version of Tom Paxton’s “Can’t help but wonder where I’m bound” seems to me to be the song for current times:

    It’s a long and dusty road, It’s a hot and a heavy load
    and the folks I meet ain’t always kind
    Some are bad and some are good
    Some have done the best they could
    Some have tried to ease my troubled mind

    And I can’t help but wonder
    Where I’m bound, where I’m bound
    Can’t help but wonder where I’m bound

    I’ve been wanderin’ through this land just a-doin’ the best I can
    Tryin’ to find what I was meant to do
    And the people that I see look as worried as can be
    And it looks like they are wonderin’ too

  31. 31
    Redshift says:

    @cckids: And it’s so true, too. I like NiN a lot, but I heard the Johnny Cash version first, and when I heard Trent’s version, my first thought was that not only is it not as good, it’s not nearly as good.

    The only Cash song I remember being exposed to growing up was “A Boy Named Sue,” which was definitely a weird and wonderful thing.

  32. 32
    Luna Sea says:

    The video for the song Hurt came out a month after my mom died. My father, who had always been a fan of Cash and country in general actually got angry when he watched it — hit way too close to home for him. In the months to come, his health deteriorated, with dementia plus increasing blindness, and he died barely a year after my mom. To me, that song perfectly captures the grief of that year.

  33. 33
    MikeJ says:

    @Johnnybuck: As good as Kermit?

  34. 34
    arguingwithsignposts says:

    In My Life doesn’t even sound like a Beatles song. And “Hung My Head,” which doesn’t sound like a Sting song, either.

    Sting said: “”The song is now confirmed as a bona fide ‘country’ song, having been covered by the late, great Johnny Cash in the final years of his life. I was so proud to hear my words and music interpreted by the ‘master,’ although he did replace the last word in the second line of verse two, stream with sheen, for some reason. Whatever, he was probably just reading a misprint, and, even so, it didn’t detract one bit from the final result.”

  35. 35
    Mnemosyne says:

    Also, it’s not my favorite version of it, but I can’t resist Cash singing Costello.

    I’ll bet Elvis squealed like a schoolgirl when he found out.

  36. 36
    arguingwithsignposts says:

    Dammit, Levenson beat me to it.

  37. 37
    Pete says:

    Use to think Johnny Cash was alright until I found out he ripped off “Folsom Prison Blues” from a song called “Crescent City Blues”.

  38. 38
    kdaug says:

    Oh, and if you didn’t click the link, click the fucking link.

    Trust me.

  39. 39
    arguingwithsignposts says:

    @Pete: Shit, son, if we stopped listening to everyone who “ripped off” another song, we’d have nothing to listen to but classical music. GTFO with that shit.

  40. 40
    Omnes Omnibus says:


    I’ll bet Elvis squealed like a schoolgirl when he found out.

    I damn near did. I was not aware that this existed.

  41. 41
    Eric U. says:

    when I was growing up, I mostly heard the schmaltzy, over-produced stuff that Cash did and never really gave him a chance. ‘Hurt’ really gave me an appreciation for his talent.

    @Mnemosyne: I am not sure that was a surprise to Costello. He did a country music album and has out of his way to collaborate with country musicians.

  42. 42
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @Pete: Good artists borrow, great artists steal.

  43. 43
    MikeJ says:


    Shit, son, if we stopped listening to everyone who “ripped off” another song, we’d have nothing to listen to but classical music.

    Most classical music is ripped off. Probably more so than pop music.

  44. 44
    Comrade Carter says:

    Redemption Song, with Joe Strummer.


  45. 45
    Mnemosyne says:


    Well, he did end up paying them for using it, if that helps.

  46. 46
    Mnemosyne says:

    @Eric U.:

    You must never have been a schoolgirl if you think you have to be surprised in order to squeal like one when something exciting happens.

    Think more along the lines of all of those Beatles audiences in the early 1960s.

  47. 47
    Pete says:

    Yeah after he got sued for it. Sorry as far as I’m concerned, there is “borrowing” and then there is stealing. Johnny Cash stole it. Pure and simple.

  48. 48
    Seanly says:

    Ring of Fire, ‘nuf said.

  49. 49
    Mnemosyne says:


    And he paid the settlement, and gave the guy credit on future pressings. What did you want him to do, get into a time machine and go stop himself from doing it?

    As others have said, if you’re going to get upset about musicians who steal from other musicians even after they pay up, you pretty much have to stop listening to music.

  50. 50
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @Pete: Actually with the lyrical changes, it was an entirely different song. And for what it is worth, Gordon Jenkins used the melody of an earlier blues song as the basis for his version. It is not quite as black and white as one might think. Also too, it appears that Sam Phillips and Sun Records may carry some blame as well.

  51. 51
    Democrat Partisan Asshole says:

    @Pete: Shit, Zeppelin stole – and really did steal, word for fucking word – half their catalog. You want to get worked up over musical thievery, they’re the modern-day champs.

  52. 52
    Gemina13 says:

    @Democrat Partisan Asshole:


    The SO listened to it as I had a playlist going. He sat in open-mouthed astonishment and said, “I think that’s as good as his cover of ‘Hurt’, and it damn well should be on the soundtrack for ‘The Walking Dead.'”

    “Ain’t No Grave” should be listened to along with “Redemption Road” and “God’s Gonna Cut You Down.” All three raise my hackles as if the Angel of Death just walked in, sat down beside me, and started singing prophecies.

    (And “Hurt” still makes me cry. There’ll never be another Johnny Cash in my lifetime, I think. That kind of talent only comes around once a century.)

  53. 53
    BSR says:

    Always liked his cover of Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down”

    There are too many others, but I gotta mention “Give My Love to Rose”, “The Beast in Me”, “Sixteen Tons”, and “Riders in the Sky”.

  54. 54
    JCT says:

    @Omnes Omnibus: You beat me to it — love that one.

    My father was a huge Johnny Cash fan, took us kids a long time to appreciate his music, but I grew up surrounded by it.

  55. 55
    Anne Laurie says:

    I like folksinger Ann Hill’s comment: “Everybody makes fun of country music until they go through their first divorce.”

    All the easy choices having been posted already, here’s Mr. Cash’s daughter singing one of her old man’s signature favorites.

  56. 56
    MattR says:

    Apparently I am in the minority who finds Cash’s cover of Hurt difficult to listen to. I sat through the whole thing hoping that the good part was coming, but it never did.

  57. 57
    MikeJ says:

    The very first time I got pulled over by a cop was in Mississippi County Arkansas, home of Johnny Cash. I was 15 years old, didn’t have a driver’s license, and was driving home to Memphis from Colorado. The cop decided it was more trouble than it was worth. And then I got pulled over two years later on my way to college and got a ticket, same spot, same speed, less trouble to ticket.

  58. 58
    Jim, Foolish Literalist says:

    @MattR: Jacob Dylan hates the whole Rick Rubin production; said IIRC he feels like someone he knew and loved and respected personally and professionally was being exploited. My understanding is that as weak as he was at the end, Cash never lost a step mentally, so he knew exactly what he was doing.

  59. 59
    burnspbesq says:

    The Cash lineage now reaches three generations of great singers.

    Chelsea Crowell, daughter of Rodney and Rosanne.


  60. 60
    burnspbesq says:

    @Omnes Omnibus:

    Good artists borrow, great artists steal.

    Case in point: the main theme of Paul Simon’s best song, “American Tune,” is straight out of the St. Matthew Passion. Note for note.

  61. 61
    Mnemosyne says:


    Oh, it’s difficult to listen to and, like I said, I think it’s even harder when it’s sung by someone who’s reached the end of his life, because there’s no shred of redemption held out like there is if a younger person sings it.

    It’s also melancholy, but I love Cash’s version of “We’ll Meet Again” from the same album. It’s sad because it’s (obviously) about dying, but it’s also hopeful. Especially when June Carter’s voice floats in with the chorus at the end.

  62. 62
    MattR says:

    @Mnemosyne:@Jim, Foolish Literalist: I guess I was not clear enough. It was difficult to listen to because it was piss poor.

  63. 63
    brewmn says:

    One of the formative musical influences in my life. I sent him a couple of cassette tapes when I was nine or so, recording me on a schoolroom tape recorder singing along with his songs on record. The second one got me an autographed picture. I remember feeling vaguely disappointed. I guess I expected him to ask me to back him up on stage or something. Man, how I wish I had held on to that picture now. It would be a personal treasure.

    Favorite Cash songs? Probably this:


    Or this:


  64. 64
    Mnemosyne says:

    Also, too, fun fact for those who didn’t know it — singer/songwriter Nick Lowe was Johnny Cash’s (step)son-in-law, and they stayed friendly after Lowe’s divorce. Here’s a video of Lowe talking about it.

  65. 65
    Mnemosyne says:


    Is this where I get to call you a young whippersnapper with no sense again?

    Also, lawn, belt onions, etc.

  66. 66
    Jim, Foolish Literalist says:

    @MattR: no, you were clear, just pointing out that you weren’t alone with something that this thread had reminded me of.

  67. 67
    MattR says:

    @Mnemosyne: Just curious, how old do you think I am?

    @Jim, Foolish Literalist: Gotcha.

  68. 68
    Mnemosyne says:


    I’m pretty sure you’re younger than 43-going-on-44. Probably late 20s, maybe early 30s. Hard to tell through a computer keyboard, though.

  69. 69
    Radio One says:

    I like Johnny Cash, but the thing that really turned me from hating country music to loving it for good was Robert Altman’s movie Nashville.

  70. 70
    MattR says:


    I’m pretty sure you’re younger than 43-going-on-44.

    About 5 years younger. (EDIT: I wish I was a whippersnapper)

  71. 71
    Mnemosyne says:


    I think I’m even more horrified that I was last night now that I know your friends who call each other “cunts” are in their late 30s. What the hell kind of bubble do they live in that no one has ever used that word against them?

    Not to go over the whole argument again, but geez. Must be nice to have reached that age and never have had someone scream that at you while you’re walking down the street minding your own business.

    ETA: At least, I’m assuming your female friends are the same age as you. And not British or Australian.

  72. 72
    mouse tolliver says:

    This thread needs more love for “A Boy Named Sue.” That song is poetry. Literally. By Shel Silverstein. And Johnny Cash’s delivery, in song form, shows off how brilliant he was.

  73. 73
    MattR says:


    What the hell kind of bubble do they live in that no one has ever used that word against them?

    Must be nice to have reached that age and never have had someone scream that at you while you’re walking down the street minding your own business.

    What makes you think they have never had that word used against them? I’m sure they have had that word yelled at them, just like they have had bitch yelled at them.

    ETA: At least, I’m assuming your female friends are the same age as you. And not British or Australian

    They are my age, more or less. And I made sure to mention in my original comment that they were American because I am well aware of the difference in culture related to that word.

  74. 74
    gwangung says:

    @MattR: That IS a whippersnapper to some of us.

  75. 75
    MattR says:

    @gwangung: Touche

  76. 76
    Anne Laurie says:

    @burnspbesq: Ahem. That would be six generations of groundbreaking Carter Family musicianship, thankyouverymuch!

  77. 77
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @Anne Laurie: No. If Chelsea is Roseanne’s daughter, there is no Carter DNA in the mix.

  78. 78
    Mnemosyne says:


    I really am not trying to start the argument up again, so I’ll just drop it.

  79. 79
  80. 80
  81. 81
    Steeplejack says:

    “Streets of Laredo.”

    Okay, somebody has to do it: “A Boy Named Sue.”

  82. 82
    Anne Laurie says:

    @Omnes Omnibus: Didn’t mean to imply it was genetic. Roseanne went into the family business — a business her daddy had married into — and now Chelsea is involved in the business, in her turn. The Carter Family did a great deal to turn ‘hillbilly pickin’ into a viable career track for musicians with ambitions beyond the local roadhouse, and IRRC Johny Cash gave full credit to his second wife’s family for helping him transition from a drunk with some pop hits to the Man in Black so many other musicians would come to revere.

    Music is a gift, and musicianship is artistry, but business is a whole other necessity.

  83. 83
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @Anne Laurie: Well, your correction to burnsie still doesn’t play. He was talking about generations of singers in the Cash family. It was an accurate statement. The Carter family business connections are a different entity.

  84. 84
    Anne Laurie says:

    @Omnes Omnibus: Dunno. I think growing up in the ‘business’ was more important to Chelsea’s career choices than just having a real pretty voice. But the nature v. nuture argument is way too complicated & sercon for this time of night; I wasn’t committing myself to a stand, just stating an opinion.

  85. 85
    raven says:

    A thread for Cash and not George Harrison?

  86. 86
    Paul in KY says:

    I always liked ‘A Boy Named Sue’. Lots of other great songs, though.

  87. 87
    WereBear says:

    I grew up listening to country, disliked most of it, but Johnny Cash, as always was an exception.

    I have since mellowed, a tad.

    But regarding “theft” we have to remember artistry always builds on what has come before, because it has to. Without the gradual stairsteps of similar-but-not-the-same, artists cannot bring along their audience, who does not have the same touchstones and cannot make the same intuitive leaps.

    I’ve had my fiction writing turned down for “too original” so I know what I’m talking about. It might work fine, now that others have done more gradual steps in that direction. Not that I’m a genius, necessarily :) just that my mind makes these weird connections, and sometimes it’s useful and sometimes it’s just alienating.

  88. 88
    Elizabelle says:

    I love that you put this thread up.

    I never get tired of Johnny Cash, never.

    And still remember the first moment I heard his version of “Hurt”.

    Approaching a toll plaza in Baltimore on a long drive to somewhere in the Midwest, and it was “Oh my God, that’s Johnny Cash.” On an alternative radio station, yet.

    His version is the best I’ve ever heard of a very good song.

    Haunting. And the video is even more so; the image of the young JC on the train; Johnny and June in their final months, as aged monarchs soon to pass to time.

    Thank you Tom.

    And Happy Birthday JC. At 81, you would still have much to tell us, through the pain, and you left us too soon.

  89. 89
    Lee says:

    @👽 Martin:

    Done in one!

  90. 90
    Dave says:

    Johnny Cash was a drunk, abusive misogynist and we should do the right thing and not celebrate his life or career.

  91. 91
    Joshua says:

    @srv: I take the opposite approach and break things down into “Country” and “Pop Music With a Twang”.

  92. 92
    Gene in Princeton says:

    @Omnes Omnibus: It’s amazing how much better than Dylan Cash sounds on that song. Magnitudes more technique.

  93. 93
    Rob Lll says:

    I love Cash’s version of Nick Cave’s “The Mercy Seat” — one of my favorite artists covering another of my favorite artists. Cave loved it too, so much that in his concerts he often prefaces it by saying “This is a Johnny Cash song”.

  94. 94
    henrythefifth says:

    @👽 Martin: That version of “Hurt” is amazing. Hauntingly beautiful.

  95. 95
    grumpy realist says:

    @arguingwithsignposts: and we wouldn’t have a lot of classical music either. Haven’t you noted how much music composers swiped from each other? Some arias we only know of because they were lifted from operas that vanished and got stuck in more popular operas; e.g. Orfeo’s aria before he goes off to the Underworld to rescue Euridice in Gluck’s Orfeo.

  96. 96
    RP says:

    I’m surprised no one has mentioned his cover of “One” by U2. I think he owns that song as much as “Hurt.”

  97. 97
    gogiggs says:

    Back in 1997, my best friend and I decided to drive to Flint, MI to see Johnny Cash. It was a bit of a drive from Cleveland, but it was the closest he was coming and we figured we might not have too many more chances to see the man.
    So we went and we were so excited we didn’t even mind much that we were missing our beloved Indians playing in game 6 of the World Series that same night. The show was great and we were having a lot of fun. Then Johnny dropped his guitar pick. He bent over to pick it up and he stumbled a bit. He straightened up and said, “I guess I better tell y’all, I’ve got Parkinson’s disease”. Some of the audience chuckled, but Johnny wasn’t kidding. “It ain’t funny”, he said. He said a little more, then finished the show. The next day the news was all over the place and it was announced the rest of the tour was cancelled. He never toured again. I still have my ticket. One of the best decisions I ever made.
    RIP Johnny. You are missed.

  98. 98
    Scott says:

    @Dave: “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone”.
    Johnny Cash would be the first to say he was not perfect in his younger days. However, he did many good things after marrying June Carter, including opposing the wars and supporting Native American causes.
    So Dave, you can GFY.

  99. 99
    Wally Ballou says:

    @srv: Isn’t that pretty much why “Americana” as a music genre was invented?

    Or perhaps it just comes down to Chet Flippo’s distinction between “Red Country” and “Blue Country”.

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