Johnny Cash’s pedigree knows no bounds. The Man in Black was admired for his musical talent, trademark baritone voice and rebelliousness, coupled with a sombre, humble personality that endeared him to fans worldwide. His songs have been covered by Nine Inch Nails, Soundgarden and Depeche Mode, showing the far-reaching extent of his influence. Additionally, without his nurture and support, there would be no Bob Dylan.
“Part rural preacher, part outlaw Robin Hood, he was a blue-collar prophet who, dressed in stark contrast to the glinting rhinestones and shimmering psychedelia of the time, spoke truth to power.” It’s hard to not see this as the ultimate description of the man.
This revisionist perspective on the essence of The Man in Black perfectly encapsulates the country icon, and it is no surprise he is one of the best selling artists of all time, with over 90 million global record sales. This trend shows no sign of abating, years after his heartbreaking death in 2003.
Whilst, his life was full of ups and downs, excess, adultery and everything else one would normally equate with a musician of his stature, he churned out record after record, and hit after hit, starting with his debut album Johnny Cash with His Hot and Blue Guitar! in 1957. His back catalogue is so gargantuan it has unsurprisingly spawned an equally high volume of cover versions.
The number of covers his songs have been subjected to is a testament to his legacy. One song stands out. Due to its iconic composition and the number of covers it has spawned is 1963’s ‘Ring of Fire’. The irony of this track, which is one of Cash’s best-loved, is that it was technically a cover of sorts in itself.
The song was originally written by June Carter and Merle Kilgore and was first recorded by June’s sister, Anita, on her 1963 album Folk Songs Old and New — entitled ‘(Love’s) Ring of Fire’. Although the title sounds foreboding, invoking a wicked biblical image from the Middle Ages, the term actually refers to falling in love.
The sensation June Carter was experiencing at the time with Johnny Cash, and before too long, she would become June Carter Cash. This relationship would define the lives of both “The Man in Black” and Carter.
Allegedly, the line “Love is like a burning ring of fire” was underlined in one of Carter’s uncle’s Elizabethan poetry books. She liked it so much she teamed up with Kilgore to write a song using it as the main motif. After Anita’s version was released, Cash claimed he had a dream where he heard the song accompanied by “Mexican horns.” Following, Cash said to Anita, “I’ll give you about five or six more months, and if you don’t hit with it, I’m gonna record it the way I feel it”.
The rest was history. Cash would add the iconic mariachi style horns and tinker with a few of the original phrases from Anita Carter’s version, and it would become a number one hit, one of the biggest of his career. To this day, it has had over a million digital downloads.
Describing the hit, Cash’s eldest daughter, Rosanne maintains “The song is about the transformative power of love and that’s what it has always meant to me and that’s what it will always mean to the Cash children.”
Contrastingly, in 2004, Merle Kilgore, who shared the original writing credit with June Carter, proposed licensing the song for a haemorrhoid cream commercial. When performing the song live, he would often jokingly dedicate the song to the “makers of Preparation H”. Predictably, June’s heirs refused to let the song be licensed for the advert.
Given the iconic nature of the song, and the dichotomy in feelings towards it, there of course exists covers hailing from every end of the musical spectrum. Join us, as we present the five best covers of Johnny Cash’s ‘Ring of Fire’.
The 5 best ‘Ring of Fire’ covers:
5. Social DIstortion – Social Distortion (1990)
From California punk’s Social Distortion’s eponymous third album, the Fullerton natives didn’t tinker with the formula too much. They just made it very punk. The classic horn riff is played on electric guitar, and instead of chugging along in Cash’s trademark locomotive style, this cover pounces into the song without messing around. The song is perfectly suited to the punk/blues fusion that Social Distortion do so well.
This cover sounds like the driver of Cash’s locomotive on speed, about to come off the rails — whilst also managing to be respectful to the original.
4. Blondie – Roadie Original Soundtrack (1980)
This cover contains all the cheese of new wave you could imagine. It was composed for 1980’s Roadie, a country-rock flop. The film’s plot involves a young Texas boy finding a knack for electronic equipment and then landing a job as a roadie with a wild, travelling rock and roll show. The film starred Roy Orbison, Hank Williams Jr., Alice Cooper and in his first starring role, Meatloaf.
The film is of course not to everyone’s taste, with a 14% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. However, Blondie’s cover of the Cash classic is fun and disco-savvy. The new-wavers manage to blend the country of The Man in Black with their turn of the decade funky groove. The highlight of the track is Debbie Harry’s closing catcall “burn, burn, burn, ring of fire!” — providing a witty, yet typically Blondie take on the ’63 hit.
3. Wall of Voodoo – Wall of Voodoo EP (1980)
Wall of Voodoo’s 1980 cover is one of the more interesting ones out there. The underrated L.A. rockers blend the synth-driven new wave style with their trademark Ennio Morricone inspired spaghetti-Western feel, creating a warped and dark futuristic feel. This cover provides a meta take on the song, showing Wall of Voodoo’s inventive side.
In terms of being self-referential, the guitar solo is a dissonant cover of the theme tune from the 1966 James Bond parody Our Man Flint, giving the song the dimension of being a cover within a cover.
The song is a sinister, mechanical take on Johnny Cash’s effort. It succeeds in pulling the song from the scorching deserts of the Old West and catapults it at light speed into the urbanised, developing future.
2. Frank Zappa – The Best Band You Never Heard in Your Life (1991)
One of the best covers of ‘Ring of Fire’ in existence, this one blends the manic genius of Frank Zappa, with The Man in Black’s chugging country version. This reggaed-out, dubby jaunt is as if the original track was made on quaaludes. Furthermore, the Zappa album it is off is a live double album, composed of other wacky covers such as ‘’Purple Haze’ and ‘Stairway to Heaven’.
Zappa’s version is like a Hunter S. Thompson take on the song, and the vocals are so Zappa that one could be forgiven for understanding them as mocking the original. However, Zappa’s “Ow! Ow! Ow!” interjection, and over-the-top cowboy accent, make this a fun, LSD doused, reimagining of the original. Also, nothing was sacred to rock’s arch-satirist, so it is practical to take this cover at face value and ride with the image of Johnny Cash fronting a dub band in the Caribbean.
1. Brian Eno/John Cale – Soil X Samples (1990)
Without a doubt the best cover of ‘Ring of Fire’ out there. Not only is this a masterclass in reimagining a track, let alone this one, it also features two of the most iconic sonic pioneers of all time. The Velvet Underground’s master of drone John Cale and visionary producer and musician Brian Eno. This rendition is a mellow, reverb-drenched take that features elements of folk, world and ambient.
Not as well regarded for their voices as other components of their characters, the duo succeeds in conveying the song’s original lovelorn sentiment, and it could quite easily fit as an accompaniment to one of the hazy works of Richard Linklater or Sofia Coppola.
It was released in 1990 by Warner Bros. as part of a series called Soil X Samples. The series featured different artists on each side of the record performing one-off songs. This particular one was used as a teaser for college radios, promoting the duo’s upcoming album Wrong Way Up.
The song is triumphant and strips back Cash’s use of the mariachi horns, instead, reworking it through the droning, ambient tag-team of Eno and Cale.