Listening back to Tom Petty’s songs now, especially if it’s someone who has grown up listening to them, one cannot help but feel a hit of nostalgia. Petty’s songs have always had that ability to bring back memories of a simpler time, even if things have been a little rough. Even more so because he has somehow been able to make us relate pure rock and roll to feelings of tranquillity and calmness. The lively nature that he was able to channel into his music has captivated the hearts of all who have been an audience to his songs.
A contemporary and his compadre in some of his musical endeavours has been none other than the iconic and most celebrated Johnny Cash. Cash’s bass-baritone voice gave a distinctive sound which added to the almost sombre music that he played, especially in the latter stages of his career. The ‘You Are My Sunshine’ singer was known for harping on a variety of genres throughout his journey as a musician, ranging from country to rock, from folk, blues to gospel rockabilly and outlaw.
As a fan of Cash’s music, Tom Petty never missed a chance to pay homage to his idol and somewhere between mutual respect and admiration, the two ended up working on several projects together, which often involved covering each other’s songs. For this feature, we look back on Johnny Cash’s cover of one of Tom Petty’s greatest hits, ‘I Won’t Back Down’.
Originally released as the lead single from Petty’s album Full Moon Fever in 1989, ‘I Won’t Back Down’ sent a message of resistance to the overpowering and oppressive forces that threatened to create a divide in the society. The song wasn’t all that profound lyrically – it said things the way they were, but carried with it the themes of resiliency and strength. Petty later released a slower, quieter, but equally resolute version of the song that his band Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers performed on America: A Tribute to Heroes, a telethon following the 9/11 attacks in 2001. Among the many who covered Petty’s song was the illustrious Johnny Cash.
Cash’s cover of ‘I Won’t Back Down’ featured on his album American III: Solitary Man, released in 2000. In many ways, the cover was a response to Cash’s personal ailments that he suffered prior to making this album. The cover saw a shift from Petty’s rock-inclined sound to a more country-based approach. Tom Petty contributed his vocals and the guitar to Cash’s version of the song. In this recording, Cash lowered the key and used the steady strumming patterns of the acoustic guitar in place of Petty’s original rhythms by muted electric guitars. The consistently deteriorating quality of Cash’s once gravelly voice was palpable in this cover, and evidently so – what with his constant struggle against his decaying health. However, the spirit of the song remained – the lyrics, “I got just one life/ In a world that keeps on pushin’ me around/ But I’ll stand my ground/ And I won’t back down,” reminiscent of the unabating fight in us that must always prevail as well as Cash’s personal defiance to give in to his illnesses.
If there were ever a touchstone for what a real friendship would look like, the one between Johnny Cash and Tom Petty would be a pretty strong contender. Cash had once told Petty, “You’re a good man to ride the river with”, to which Petty’s response was: “All I want to be in life, is a good man to ride the river with.” When it’s a case of a solid friendship between two of the most legendary musicians of all time and their exemplary musical collaborations, you can count on us to be here for it.
Listen to Johnny Cash’s cover of Tom Petty’s ‘I Won’t Back Down’ below.