Johnny Cash is undoubtedly one of the most iconic musicians of the 20th century. The singer’s morose songwriting and understated menace provided a gritty realism that the world of music desperately needed. Across a range of songs, Cash embodied the spirit of his generation and presented himself as a simple man trying to make his way in the world without being crushed — or crushing anyone along the way. It’s a premise that has continued to reverberate his legacy years after his passing.
Though they may not seem like natural bedfellow, one man highly influenced by the Man in Black was the leading man of The Streets, Mike Skinner. As the frontman of the project, Skinner used colloquial British slang to bring hip hop over the Atlantic into the British mainstream, becoming one of the most influential men in modern music. Both men connected with the beating heart of the working class, it seems that Skinner was a fan of Cash’s songs and his attitude, and it influenced a range of The Streets’ classic songs.
When speaking with Red Bull back in 2013, Mike Skinner was asked a series of questions such as the first song that really caught his attention and stopped him in his tracks, to which he answered: “It was probably ‘Da Funk’ by Daft Punk. That’s the only thing that’s really made me go ‘Wow,’ because it was just so different to everything else that was being played in clubs at the time. That was the first thing that really made me want to strip everything down and make it as simple as possible.”
The really interesting question came when he was asked to pick the song he wishes he had written. For Skinner, it was a simple choice: “That’s easy – ‘A Boy Named Sue’. It was sung by Johnny Cash at the Folsom Prison concert he did. It’s written by Shell Silverstein, who wrote with Dr Hook and also wrote children’s books. But ‘A Boy Named Sue’ is an unbelievable song.”
Originally written by singer-songwriter, poet and cartoonist Shel Silverstein, ‘A Boy Named Sue’ followed a rather dramatic descent in the narrative. A boy narrates how he grew up without a father. His father had left him but not before naming him ‘Sue’. For his entire life, he cursed “that man” for embarrassing him. So, he sought revenge, and at the climax of the story, when both had pulled their guns out and aimed at the other, Sue’s father justifies his selection, “It’s that name that helped to make you strong”. At that moment, Sue choked up and embraced his father for igniting the “gravel in your gut and the spit in the eye”. The song, however, hilariously ended on a note of humour, with Sue saying: “If I ever have a boy, I’ll name him Bill or George or Frank” – anything but Sue: “I hate that name”.
Remarkably, Skinner went further and proclaimed that the song, as well as country music at large, was the instigator for some of The Streets’ prized second album A Grand Don’t Come For Free best songs: “A lot of The Streets’ stuff was based on the structure of it. I’ve got a very strong idea of how I like production to sound and that comes from hip hop and dance music. But with the lyrics – by the second album I was just listening to country music, it’s all influenced by country rather than rap.”
The song followed Cash’s style of talking blues, where he used the spoken word format with the basic accompaniment of a string and a percussion instrument. With that in mind, it’s clear to see how the influence of Cash could transcend genre and find a happy home in the style of Mike Skinner.
Below, listen to the Johnny Cash song Mike Skinner wishes he wrote and see how it influenced The Streets.