Johnny Cash is a man who knows his way around a cover or two. The Man in Black’s career has been littered with sensational covers, many pf them going on to define Cash as an artist.
From his rendition of Nine Inch Nails’ ‘Hurt’, to his only Billboard 100 Top 10 hit with Shel Silverstein’s ‘A Boy Named Sue’ in 1969, Johnny Cash can take command of any song he gets to grips with. His performance of Elvis Costello’s ‘The Big Light’ is another reminder of that power.
Cash’s cover arrived in 1987 on his Johnny Cash Is Coming To Town record and under some rather curious circumstances. Costello had only just released the song himself, his new wave punk energy on the song being a defining moment on his King of America record. The album was the first Costello recorded without his backing band The Attractions after a dispute turned ugly.
It meant that Costello leaned on the classic stylings of T Bone Burnett as well as Elvis Presley’s legendary TCB backing band with guitarist James Burton and Jerry Scheff adding an extra dose of class. Yet, when Cash picked up the song a year later he transformed the song into something entirely of his own.
With a heavy horn section, The Carter Family’s country charm, and the vocal power Cash has in buckets, this cover is a suave and peacocking joy. He changes Costello’s morning after the night before reflection into something a little more glamorous night than hangover mornings.
Costello and Cash were more frequent collaborators than was first believed. Their mutual friend, the legendary singer-songwriter Nick Lowe, had invited both artists to his home studio where they recorded a version of George Jones’ ‘We Oughta Be Ashamed’. The song would wait until 2004 to see a full release when it appeared on the reissued Almost Blue‘s second disc of bonus tracks. The track was held back by Costello after happily admitting that he sounded “like a whimpering schoolgirl next to John.”
The pair even dueted ‘The Big Light’ when The Carter Family pulled up in London and Costello made an appearance. Costello again obliged when Cash returned two years later for a special show at London’s Royal Albert Hall. For now, watch Johnny Cash and the Carter Family perform ‘The Big Light’ below.