Johnny Cash's was many different things to different people. To the rebels, he was an outlaw; to the traditionalists, he was country royalty; and to the devout, he was a gospel singer.
Below are the best Johnny Cash songs to find your favorite version of The Man in Black.
“The Man in Black”
Song year: 1971
Johnny Cash was a veteran of the music scene as the counter-culture movement of the late '60s was in full swing. That didn't stop him from adding his voice and perspective to the broader national conversation.
In “Man in Black,” Cash proclaims his faith, his stance on war, and his support for the underprivileged. The song serves as a mission statement for the singer and encapsulates his ethos.
“I Walk the Line”
Song year: 1957
“I Walk the Line” became Johnny Cash's first number-one single and would become one of the most famous songs of his career.
Cash wrote the song as a vow to his then-wife, inspired by hearing chords running backward through a tape recorder. Initially a ballad, Sam Phillips at Sun Records insisted he speed up the tempo.
“I Walk the Line” is considered one of the greatest songs of all time in any genre.
“Jackson” with June Carter Cash
Song year: 1967
Johnny Cash and his future wife June Carter would give us a precursor of things to come when they recorded the duet “Jackson” five years before their eventual marriage.
Though the two met in the '50s, it wasn't until 1968 that both were single and ready for one another. As immortalized in the film Walk the Line, the love story between Johnny and June is one for the ages.
Song year: 2002
Johnny Cash introduced himself to an entirely new generation through his work with pioneering producer Rick Rubin. During this period, Cash would cover the industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails' song “Hurt.”
At first, the aggressive and depressing nature of the song's lyrical content seemed out of step with Cash. But Cash's reinterpretation became a meditation on mortality, and the track now stands as one of his best.
“All I Do Is Drive”
Song year: 1974
During the '70s, there was a big trend of country songs about truck driving. Perhaps because of the mystique of the road or the inherently blue-collar nature of the job, these trucking songs were very successful.
Of course, when Johnny Cash wrote a trucking song, it was the real deal. In “All I Do Is Drive,” Cash asks a truck driver over a chugging rhythm if it's a glamorous life. The answer probably won't surprise you.
“Folsom Prison Blues”
Song year: 1957
Johnny Cash wrote “Folsom Prison Blues” while serving in the Air Force in West Germany. By combining the folk tradition of prison songs and train songs, Cash expressed his desire to get out of the service while writing one of the most iconic outlaw songs of all time.
Cash would start his sets with “Folsom Prison Blues.” It became one of his most known compositions and the catalyst for his classic live album At Folsom Prison.
“Sunday Morning Coming Down”
Song year: 1968
Though written by Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash has become synonymous with the song “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” It is just one of the many examples of Cash's great skill as an interpreter of songs.
When Cash sings about being hungover, whether it's because of his performance or his public history, it rings true. Cash would take this experience to the top of the country charts with “Sunday Morning Coming Down.”
“God’s Gonna Cut You Down”
Song year: 2006
“God's Gonna Cut You Down” is a traditional gospel-folk song that Cash recorded with Rick Rubin shortly before passing away. This arrangement is a decidedly modern interpretation, with a blistering folk-blues guitar riff bolstered by stomps and claps.
The song's music video was released posthumously. It features dozens of cameos from actors and musicians. The song appears in numerous films and sporting events.
“The Legend of John Henry’s Hammer”
Song year: 1963
Johnny Cash's catalog includes many songs of folk heroes and villains. One of the best of his traditional folk interpretations came in his early '60s cover of the folk hero tale “The Legend of John Henry's Hammer.”
John Henry stands for racial equality, worker's rights, and the triumphant spirit of humanity. As subject matter for a Johnny Cash song, there aren't many stories much better suited.
“Ring of Fire”
Song year: 1963
“Ring of Fire” is one of Johnny Cash's best-known songs and is considered one of the greatest country songs ever. Written by June Carter, Cash would top the country charts with the song for seven straight weeks.
Over sixty years after its composition, “Ring of Fire” remains a gold standard in country music and one of the most iconic Johnny Cash performances.
“A Boy Named Sue”
Song year: 1969
Written by children's author Shel Silverstein, Johnny Cash's single “A Boy Named Sue” would be his highest-charting song ever on the Billboard Hot 100, coming in at number two.
The story song tells of a young man named Sue by his heartless father and his subsequent journey to find the man that gave him the awful name. The runaway success of “A Boy Named Sue” would be the catalyst for Cash to record more light-hearted songs later in his career.
“I Still Miss Someone”
Song year: 1958
Johnny Cash's romantic side comes out in his song “I Still Miss Someone.” But even writing a love song had to be dark for the Man in Black, and this b-side to “Don't Take Your Guns to Town” tells the tale of longing for a lost love.
“I Still Miss Someone” has been covered by numerous country artists since the '60s and is one of Cash's best-loved songs.
Song year: 1968
Over a decade after Johnny Cash burst onto the scene, he was still shocking audiences with raw interpretations of songs about outlaws. On his album At Folsom Prison, Cash would record a fiery, modern version of the folk song “Cocaine Blues.”
The song's provocative language and subject matter made it a hit with his prison audience. The inclusion of this edgy track led to At Folsom Prison becoming a landmark live album.
“Don’t Take Your Guns to Town”
Song year: 1958
The adage that mothers always know best rings true on the classic Johnny Cash song “Don't Bring Your Guns to Town.” Here, Cash sings of a cowboy implored by his mother to leave his six-shooter behind. The son doesn't listen and dies in a shootout.
Cash would score a number one country hit with this song, another early entry into his songbook of those living outside the margins.
“Orange Blossom Special”
Song year: 1965
As a popular folk and bluegrass song, “Orange Blossom Special” is in the storied tradition of American train songs. Johnny Cash would record his version for an album of the same title in 1965.
Usually performed as an instrumental meant to display technical proficiency of the fiddle, Cash instead used harmonica to highlight the train themes while singing the song's lyrics of traveling across America.
“The One on the Right Is on the Left”
Song year: 1966
As menacing as Johnny Cash's songs could be, it's clear that he enjoyed a good laugh, too. In 1966 he recorded Everybody Loves a Nut, an album of novelty joke songs. His version of “The One on the Right is on the Left” would be the highest-charting song from the album.
Telling the story of a folk band that eventually breaks up based on their ideological differences, the song was wink at the burgeoning folk scene in New York and the growing counter-culture.
“Long Black Veil”
Song year: 1965
Johnny Cash adds his brooding baritone to “Long Black Veil,” the classic country ballad of false accusations and extramarital affairs. Though he wasn't the first to record the song, he performed it on the first episode of The Johnny Cash Show.
The song's protagonist is falsely accused of murder. However, the night in question, he was sleeping with his best friend's wife. To keep their secret, he dies instead of telling the truth.
Song year: 1962
“Hey Porter” has the unique distinction of being the first train-themed song Johnny Cash would record. Trains were a common theme throughout his career, drawing from the tradition of trains in folk songs.
The song tells the story of a man returning home and being so excited that he's constantly checking in with the train's porter to see the progress of their trip. Cash took inspiration in returning home from the Air Force.
“Flesh and Blood”
Song year: 1970
Johnny Cash started the '70s with another number one country hit with “Flesh and Blood.” Written for the film I Walk the Line, the song was the centerpiece of a soundtrack composed entirely of Cash's songs.
Though I Walk the Line has mostly faded from the public's consciousness, “Flesh and Blood” remains an enduring Johnny Cash original.
“Cry! Cry! Cry!”
Song year: 1955
“Cry! Cry! Cry!” was Johnny Cash's first single, and its success kick-started one of the most influential careers in music history. After releasing “Cry! Cry! Cry!” Cash would hit the road on tours with peers such as Elvis Presley.
These tours were an effective way for artists to spread their music. However, they were also grueling and often hard for musicians to manage. It was during this time that Cash would begin his substance abuse.
Song year: 1959
“Get Rhythm” was originally released as the b-side to “I Walk the Line” in 1959. The song's central theme of optimism despite horrible working conditions seemed to strike a chord with audiences.
In 1969 the song would be released as a single in its own right. Due to the success of At Folsom Prison, the release featured crowd noise to make the song sound live.
“Girl From the North Country” with Bob Dylan
Song year: 1963
Two titans of 20th-century music came together when Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash recorded a duet of the Dylan song “Girl From the North Country.” Originally on Dylan's The Freewheeling Bob Dylan, the re-recorded duet opens Dylan's country-tinged Nashville Skyline.
Johnny Cash was an early champion of Bob Dylan, eventually hosting him on The Johnny Cash Show. The duet feels loose and less like a recording session than a peek behind the curtain of two influential performers.
“Brand New Dance”
Song year: 1983
Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash updated the “Jackson” story of reigniting a romantic flame with their '80s track “Brand New Dance.” The duet is an oft-overlooked entry in his catalog due to the lack of mainstream appeal Cash experienced during the decade.
While “Brand New Dance” remains a deeper album cut, the chemistry between Johnny and June on the track is as vital as ever.
Song year: 1962
One of the darkest songs in Johnny Cash's repertoire, “Delia's Gone” tells the story of a man that murders his wife and then becomes haunted by her in his prison cell.
With Cash's booming voice only accompanied by an acoustic guitar, the bone-chilling tale of murder and ghosts remains as dark today as it was when he first recorded it.
Song year: 2002
Record producer Rick Rubin suggested Johnny Cash cover Depeche Mode's “Personal Jesus” for his album American IV: The Man Comes Around. Like his Nine Inch Nails cover on the same album, Cash makes the song his own.
Where Depeche Mode injects sex and irony into the song, Johnny Cash gives it a reading entirely appropriate for church. “Personal Jesus” was one of our last examples of his towering skills as a song interpreter.
“Tennessee Flat Top Box”
Song year: 1961
It seems Johnny Cash already had a good idea of the career he was destined for when he wrote the story of a young guitar player that achieves fame on “Tennessee Flat Top Box.”
Though Cash's character has no skills besides playing guitar, he's so good he drives the ladies mad and eventually becomes a television star. Johnny Cash would become the host of his own tv show a decade later.
“Aint No Grave”
Song year: 2010
Recorded in the final months of his life and released posthumously, “Ain't No Grave” finds Johnny Cash fully aware of his mortality. The song is a traditional folk number, and as he had his entire career, Cash embodies the story with a vocal performance that feels more like acting than singing.
The haunting song serves as a fitting final piece to the storied career of The Man in Black.
Top Johnny Cash Songs, Final Thoughts
Through his writing, performing, hard-living, and even harder loving, Johnny Cash told the stories of sinners and saints with equal enthusiasm. His contributions to music will continue to entertain and inspire audiences for generations to come.
We hope you enjoyed discovering Johnny Cash through our list of his best songs.