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Music

From Bob Dylan to Nick Cave: The 10 best covers of Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash is one of few artists who have planted their flag so firmly in the history books that it seems little introduction is required. The Man in Black was famous for his unique blend of rockabilly, country, folk and blues. His influence on popular music over the years is incalculably vast. His music during the 1950s was an inspiration to celebrated songwriter Bob Dylan, who would often cover his icon and replicate his guitar style as he carved out a career of his own. Once Dylan had become a prominent musician in his own right, he and Cash became close friends who would continue to inspire each other over the years. 

Throughout his career, Cash presented a demeanour of being a bad-boy outlaw, mostly thanks to his famous prison gigs at San Quentin and Folsom Prison. Albeit small, there was some truth behind this image. Cash ran up a total of seven arrests between 1959 and 1968. The charges ranged from public drinking in excess, reckless driving and possession of illicit drugs. The most comical arrest took place when, after a small drinking binge in Starkville, Mississippi, Cash was found picking flowers in someone’s private garden in the dead of night. The most famous and likely the most serious of his offences was in El Paso, Texas, in 1965, when he was caught attempting to smuggle amphetamines, to which he had become addicted in the 1960s, over the border from Juarez, Mexico. 

Despite these offences and his image as a naughty lad, he was never in any serious trouble and certainly wasn’t the type to shoot a man in Reno just to watch him die. Cash was said to have been a kind soul who would often compliment and help fellow artists to achieve their aspirations. The final album Cash released before his death in September 2003, American IV: The Man Comes Around, was mostly made up of covers he had recorded to pay tribute to some of the artists whose music he had admired over the years. Among the covers were tributes to Depeche Mode, Nine Inch Nails, Paul Simon and The Beatles.

Here, we take a look back at some of the occasions when other artists have paid homage to Cash. We reveal our pick for the ten best cover tributes other artists have paid to the rock icon.

The 10 best covers of Johnny Cash;

‘Get Rhythm’ – Little Richard

The upbeat swing to this 1959 classic makes it almost seem as if it were made especially for a vibrant and energetic singer like Little Richard. This emphatically reproduced cover appears on the 2002 Kindred Spirits tribute album for Johnny Cash. 

Little Richard recorded his cover aged 70 but still retained the youthful energy of his heyday. While nothing can beat the original in my eyes, this cover comes pretty close and perhaps unearths a few more dancing shoes among listeners than Cash’s version.

‘The Folk Singer’ – Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds

Eclectic Australian musician Nick Cave never shies from a melancholy track. When looking to cover his icon, The Man in Black, he chose an absolute corker. ‘The Folk Singer’ was first recorded as the B-side to Johnny Cash’s big hit ‘Folsom Prison Blues’. 

The recaptured version by Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds was released in 1986 and was renamed ‘The Singer’. The song went on to become a staple of the group’s live performances during the late 1980s.

‘Train of Love’ – Bob Dylan

After Bob Dylan rose to fame in the early to mid-1960s, he met one of his icons, Johnny Cash. The two would later become close friends and even worked to make music together, most memorably with the arresting duet on ‘Girl From the North Country’ which featured on Dylan’s Nashville Skyline album.

Before Dylan was acquainted with Cash, he had been a big fan of the Man in Black and often performed covers of some of his songs. Dylan recorded this cover ‘Train of Love’ in the early 2000s for the Kindred Spirits album to pay tribute to his old friend.

‘Ring of Fire’ – Social Distortion

‘Ring of Fire’ is among Johnny Cash’s most covered songs. Other noteworthy covers have come from big names such as Blondie and Ray Charles, but my choice for ‘Ring of Fire’ has to be the perfect rock-out adaption by Social Distortion. 

The South California rock group showed their admiration for Cash in their take on ‘Ring of Fire’, which appeared on their self-titled third album. The bad-boy demeanour of the frontman Mike Ness seems to add to the authenticity of his tribute to the original voice of the outlaws.

‘Jackson’ – Florence + the Machine (feat. Josh Homme)

The powerful idiosyncratic vocals of Florence Welch met the force of Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme in 2011 for Florence + the Machine’s appearance on MTV’s Unplugged series. 

The pair gave a fantastic duet as a contemporary update to the 1967 Johnny Cash – June Carter original. The vocal performance of both pays a more than respectable tribute for the late rock legend. 

‘Folsom Prison Blues’ – Joaquin Phoenix

Legendary actor Joaquin Phoenix was cast to play Johnny Cash in the 2005 biopic Walk The Line. Cash had given his blessing for Phoenix to portray him in the film shortly before his death in 2003. He had explained that he had enjoyed Phoenix’s performance in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator.

All of the music for the film was performed by the actors Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon. The pair even took time to learn to play the instruments for maximum authenticity. None of the covers made for the soundtrack stick in my mind quite so well as Phoenix’s cover of ‘Folsom Prison Blues’; his vocal accuracy is commendable.

‘I Walk the Line’ – Halsey

Another extremely popular Johnny Cash track is ‘Walk the Line’; naturally, there’s a myriad of covers to sift through. For me, Halsey’s modern take on the track is the most daring as she looked to recreate Cash’s 1957 original into something new for the modern listener.

While I would choose Dean Martin or Leonard Nimoy for their more traditional versions if I were looking for something similar to the original, Halsey shows something more intriguing in her innovative pop-inspired tribute to the rockabilly classic.

‘Give My Love To Rose’ – Bruce Springsteen

In another tribute cover included on the Kindred Spirits album, Bruce Springsteen recaptured the magic of one of his childhood favourites. The song was allegedly inspired by an inmate at San Quentin State Prison who had asked Cash to take a message to his wife if he ever passed through his hometown.

Springsteen’s original solo acoustic cover was performed in 1999 for the television show An All-Star Tribute to Johnny Cash. The raw, stripped back cover is delivered in true Springsteen fashion while retaining the haunting aura of Cash’s original from 1957.

‘Cry, Cry, Cry’ – Elvis Costello and the Attractions

Elvis Costello seemed so at home recording his cover of Johnny Cash’s 1955 song ‘Cry, Cry, Cry’. Lyrically, the song sounds just like something Costello would come up with himself. 

His 1982 cover appeared on the B-side of the single ‘I’m Your Toy’. Costello gives a new piano-driven slant on the cover and adds something new with his unique vocals while still retaining the warm country atmosphere of the original. 

‘I Still Miss Someone – Ryan Adams and the Cardinals

Ryan Adams is no stranger to a hit cover song. One of his biggest hits to date was his 2004 cover of Oasis’ ‘Wonderwall’, and one of his most successful albums was a cover of Taylor Swift’s 2014 album 1989. 

Ryan Adams covered Johnny Cash’s lovely brooding track ‘I Still Miss Someone’ and used the recording as a bonus track on his 2005 album Jacksonville City Nights. The beauty of the cover comes from its simplicity; Adams retains the raw, stripped-back style of the original and blesses it with his unique vocals.