The Man in Black is one of the most influential country music stars of all time. Although Johnny Cash was never happy to stick to one side of the road, the singer used his iconic vocal to sing songs from across the musical spectrum. He always managed to make music not only sound exactly like the beating heart of his own character but thud with the same intensity of his soul.
Because of this ability to transcend sound and genre, he is, in fact, one of the undoubted best at covering other people’s material. As able to evoke emotion from reggae as he is the most recognisable ballad of all time, Johnny Cash has a habit of making others’ work more powerful, more emotional and, simply put, more Cash. It’s proof of Cash’s ability to assimilate himself with every kind of music.
Over the years, Johnny Cash has seen many highs and a lot of lows. The singer started his career as the darker side of rock and roll, always more dangerous than the rest of his musical hall counterparts. Soon enough, he became an icon of music and soon found global stardom. But with every peak, there must be a valley and the singer certainly experienced those too.
One big upswing the singer enjoyed, however, came in 1994 as he and Rick Rubin joined up to record American Recordings a Grammy award-winning LP that highlighted Cash’s ability to make songs his own. It got us interested in collating some of his finest covers ever. Below we have that selection.
Johnny Cash’s 20 best covers:
20. ‘For The Good Times’ – Al Green
It’s well known that Johnny Cash’s music was deeply imbued with religion and spirituality and he gives Al Green‘s classic ‘For The Good Times’ a soulful sway. On Cash’s final record he shared the brilliant cover.
Far removed from Green’s original number from 1972, Cash’s rendition of the song is twinged with the undeniable sound of heartbreak, something Cash has always been brilliant at rendering for his audience.
19. ‘I Hung My Head’ – Sting
Released originally in 1996, Sting’s version of the song was already indebted to country music. Channelling the crystalline storyline is one thing but Sting’s song is a little slow-paced, while Cash kicks things up a notch.
On Cash’s version, The Man in Black takes the song to a whole new level of country and western perfection. Aside from Cash’s twang, which naturally takes us back to a simpler time, he also adds a more mournful tone to proceedings.
18. ‘Girl from the North Country’ – Bob Dylan
Johnny Cash had a hand in the construction of ‘Girl from the North Country’, his and Dylan’s legendary bootleg sessions have gone down in the history books as the meeting of two musical icons. Cash had been a fan of Dylan’s since 1964 when he saw him at the Newport Folk Festival. He maintained that fandom throughout his life.
This performance sees the singer joined by another icon in Joni Mitchell who returned to his family favourite show, The Johnny Cash Show, for a sumptuous duet of the song, given extra lilt and lullaby quality with Mitchell’s introduction — it’s quite simply beautiful.
17. ‘Redemption Day’ – Sheryl Crow
Sheryl Crow and Johnny Cash shared a close friendship during the singer’s later years. Crow often recalls the time she and Cash spoke on the phone about cutting the track for his album America VI: Ain’t No Grave.
One of the final songs he ever recorded, produced in the months before his death, the track sees Cash accepting his fate and making peace, it’s a tragedy of sorts but entirely enriching in others.
16. ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ – The Band
With the 1975 album John R. Cash, Cash was beginning to find his niche of covering original songs. On it included a song from Robbie Robertson and The Band, one of their classics, ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’.
Naturally, Cash supercharges the song with a quicker tempo, a faster upbeat with dreams of a better Dixieland. It shows how Cash is able to transfer any song into his own language and he speaks it fluently.
15. ‘I’m On Fire’ – Bruce Springsteen
Cut as part of a Bruce Springsteen tribute album in 2000, this performance sees Cash’s long love affair with The Boss continue into the new Millenium. It sees Cash growling his way through the ballad with fervent energy.
Originally released in 1984, Springsteen’s version is given the Cash treatment and we’d say is all the better for it. The Boss may well be one of the most enigmatic singer-songwriters of the 20th century but people like Cash taught him everything he knew.
14. ‘No Expectations’ – The Rolling Stones
When The Rolling Stones released ‘No Expectations’ critics around the world noted it for its country tones, it made for a natural choice for Johnny Cash’s setlist. Ironically, Cash changed the song’s construction and turned it into a strong bluegrass number.
Johnny Cash would make the song the fulcrum of his 1978 album Gone Girl and precede the original song being given its full single release.
13. ‘Rusty Cage’ – Soundgarden
One of the more confusing covers of Cash’s long career sees the country legend take on some ’90s alt-rock royals in Soundgarden and their song ‘Rusty Cage’. It’s an odd choice but not one without its merit.
Johnny Cash adds a heavy degree of goth to proceedings and makes this grunge anthem into a neo-country-goth hybrid that feels imposing and menacing. While Chris Cornell’s vocals are unmatched, Cash does a fine job of putting his own spin on things.
12. ‘Johnny 99’ – Bruce Springsteen
Written and recorded by Springsteen in 1982, Johnny Cash took the track and not only included it on his 69th album but even titled the record after the song. Released in 1983, Cash turns the song on its head and makes it his own.
It’s perfect fodder for Cash as he tells the story of a tragic inmate and once again excels when he has to transfer the emotions of others into his own words.
11. ‘Have You Seen The Rain’ – Creedence Clearwater Revival
Rainbow is quite possibly one of Cash’s worst albums. It’s a stark reminder of the singer’s fallow period. 1985 was a crazy year for music and the singer puts in all of the eighties studio flourishes you may expect.
The cover of the Creedence Clearwater Revival is easily the shining moment on the record. Not necessarily as imposing as his other work, the song is certainly interesting, if only for the effects on his vocal.
10. ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’ – Hank Williams
A complete country music crossover as Hank Williams and Johnny Cash converge for one perfect moment. Cash covers the Williams song ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’ and naturally make sit his own.
Quite possibly one of the saddest country songs ever written, Johnny Cash turns the song into tears and makes your hairs stand on end with an effortless ease that reminds us all of the Man in Black’s searing talent.
9. ‘Personal Jesus’ – Depeche Mode
For an artist so intrinsically connected with religion and God, Johnny Cash’s version of Depeche Mode’s classic ‘Personal Jesus’ was always going to be affected more drastically by the singer.
He removes the effects and tone of the original and instead moves the song into something more simple, less confusing and entirely directional. His delivery of the song’s lyrics are measured and culture, cultivated and entirely believable. Cash adds gravitas like no other.
8. ‘You Are My Sunshine’ – Jimmie Davis and Charles Mitchell
It’s unsure whether Jimmie Davis and Charles Mitchell are authors of this song in name only, chances are that the track has been around long before the chance to record it arose. The nursery rhyme tone that has been added to the song is turned on its head by Johnny Cash.
Backed only by picked strings and his sombre breath, Cash’s vocal is low and slow, powerful and booming out the connective lyrics. His voice is stormy and soaked in the rain of America’s years.
7. ‘Redemption Song’ – Bob Marley
When Johnny Cash invited The Clash’s Joe Strummer into the studio with him and Rick Rubin to record a song they knew they had to take one a classic. They chose Bob Marley’s legendary number ‘Redemption Song’.
A track born out of Marley facing his own mortality, the lyrics are so pertinent that they even find their way into political speeches and moments of civil rights. A stripped-back, solo-acoustic number, it allows both Cash and Strummer to effectively hang the track on their vocals and the incisive lyrics, a fact which was not lost on Cash.
Rick Rubin remembered: “There was one line I was wary about because it was not good English and I said, ‘Johnny do you want to change this word to say it the way you’d say it?’” Cash looked at Rubin and said, “Bob Marley wrote that. I can’t change that!” and they didn’t. What they did add though was the guitar work of none other than Tom Morello, with the Audioslave and RATM guitar impresario doing some fine work.
6. ‘One’ – U2
U2 may not be the favourite of every rock and roller in their right mind but it’s hard to deny that Bono and U2 know their way around a ballad. ‘One’ is a perfect example.
Heavy on studio production and imbued with the determination to hit the top of the charts can make U2’s version feel a little cheesy. Cash’s performance is anything but.
Once again slowing the song down and making it decidedly more simple, the country singer takes on the lyrics of the song and like no other artist can, he piles on the emotion. It sees Bono’s lyrics act as direct questions and reflections. Of course, the religious undertones of the song are also brought to the fore by Cash.
5. ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’ – Bob Dylan
Perhaps one of Johnny Cash’s most well-known cover songs is the track he and June Carter performed as a homage to their new friend and growing folk legend Bob Dylan. With Cash and Carter as the main protagonists in the song, Dylan’s story is given an extra texture.
As part of his Orange Blossom Special LP, Cash confirmed his love for the folk icon and covered three of his songs. Taking on ‘Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright’, ‘Mama, You’ve Been on My Mind’ and ‘It Aint Me Babe’, Cash was making his feelings for Dylan very clear. The latter song would go on to seal Cash and Carter’s first hit duet, breaking the Hot 100.
There’s something about Cash’s tone in the performance below, the shared smiles and winks aside, that lets us know that despite his protestations he certainly was the one for June Carter.
4. ‘Won’t Back Down’ – Tom Petty
Johnny Cash takes on Tom Petty’s summertime classic ‘Won’t Back Down’ and, as may well have become apparent by now, turns the song’s sentiment on its head and provides a darker, far richer rendition of the original.
Petty’s version is imbued with a sense of optimism and the rhythm of hopeful days ahead. Meanwhile, Cash’s version is a rumbling and rousing performance.
Slower and far more directive, Cash provides a gravelly and growling rendition of the song that carries a far more stringent moment on the record. It’s a powerful piece of singing that leaves Cash as one of the forefathers of truly emotional songs.
3. ‘God’s Gunna Cut You Down’ – Odetta
While we can’t give the composition of the traditional folk song ‘God’s Gunna Cut You Down’ to Odetta, before Johnny Cash came around their version was undoubtedly the best. However, when Cash stepped up to the mic to record the song it quivered.
Cash sounds like a stumbling drunk who has seen the light. As he reconciles his errors with his afterlife, Cash chooses to preach the word and hand out warnings to be heeded. The trembling quality to his vocal adds even more of this storyline to the track itself as he comes to terms with his position.
Arguably one of Cash’s most beloved songs of all time.
2. ‘In My Life’ – The Beatles
One of The Beatles most cherished songs ever, ‘In My Life’ featured on the band’s album Rubber Soul and saw John Lennon and Paul McCartney work together to create a song as a pair. It saw the Fab Four reflect on their career and what they had already achieved. It’s one of the band’s first truly reflective moments.
Cash takes the song for a slower walk around the houses. Cash sings from a different perspective, recorded just a year before his death it sees the country legend taking stock of his life and career. His vocal is changed by the disease and his performance is tinted with the impending moment of death.
It sees the singer deliver one of his most impressive performances and leave us with a shaking moment of clarity.
1. ‘Hurt’ – Nine Inch Nails
Quite possibly the greatest cover of all time, Johnny Cash’s cover of Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails song ‘Hurt’ was originally a worry for Reznor. Speaking with Music Radar he said: “I’d been friends with Rick Rubin for several years. He called me to ask how I’d feel if Johnny Cash covered Hurt. I said I’d be very flattered but was given no indication it would actually be recorded.
“Two weeks went by. Then I got a CD in the post. I listened to it and it was very strange. It was this other person inhabiting my most personal song. I’d known where I was when I wrote it. I know what I was thinking about. I know how I felt. Hearing it was like someone kissing your girlfriend. It felt invasive.”
But as soon as Reznor saw the poignant video, things had changed: “It really, really made sense and I thought what a powerful piece of art. I never got to meet Johnny but I’m happy I contributed the way I did. It felt like a warm hug. For anyone who hasn’t seen it, I highly recommend checking it out. I have goosebumps right now thinking about it.”
The video saw Cash sitting in the museum ‘The House of Cash’ singing the reflective song while clips of his past are flashed on the screen. It sees the legendary performer standing in front of his audience for one final time. It’s most certainly one of his finest moments, he may be struggling to stand as straight as he once did, but he’s held up by a legacy unlike any other.