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The best Johnny Cash song from every decade

Johnny Cash’s pedigree knows no bounds. ‘The Man in Black’ was respected for his musical talent, trademark baritone voice and rebelliousness, coupled with a sombre, humble personality that endeared him to fans worldwide. His heroism is so distinguished that his songs have been covered by a variety of heroes ranging from Nine Inch Nails to Depeche Mode. It’s a testament to the man that he still so revered nearly 20 years after his death in 2003. He’s one of those rare figures who manages to live on through the sheer weight of his iconoclasm.

One of the clearest indicators of his cultural potency, apart from the countless classics that he produced, was that he helped to nurture and support Bob Dylan, a point that cannot be ignored. This reflects the degree to which Cash’s influence has permeated culture, and that through Bob Dylan’s artistry he has managed to influence countless others, even if only by proxy.

An icon of rebel country, Cash has rightly been hailed as something of a blue-collared messiah who combined the defiant essence of Robin Hood with the cocaine-fuelled carnage of the era. He cut a stark departure from the rhinestone wearing traditional country and contemporary musical styles such as psychedelia. A true maverick, no word is better at describing the man who invariably walked the line.  

Whether it be his iconic prison performances or the broader, oscillating nature of his career, Cash’s life is one of the most captivating in all of music, and was nothing short of an epic. It was such an Odyssey that it even inspired the 2007 satire, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. He did it all in his 71 years, and to have sat down with him and discussed the key moments of his life would surely have been quite something. 

Cash always possessed sage wisdom, and this gave his music a universal appeal, imbuing it with a density that his peers could only dream of. So on what would have been his 90th birthday, join us as we list the best song that Johnny Cash gave us in each decade. Expect to see some classics.

The best Johnny Cash song of each decade:

1950s – ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ (1957)

Undoubtedly Cash’s best song of the ‘50s, ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ has long been regarded as one of Cash’s signature songs. Written by Cash after he heard ‘Crescent City Blues’ by Gordon Jenkins performed by Beverly Mahr, Cash wrote the track in 1953, then recorded and released it in 1955. It remains the highlight of his 1957 debut album, Johnny Cash with His Hot and Blue Guitar!.

Notably, the song combines two popular folk styles, the train song and prison song, and after the success of the hit, Cash continued to employ both styles over his career. I have nothing but love for this track, and as Cash introduces it to the wild crowd with his husky, “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash”, you’re whisked right back to the ‘50s.

1960s – ‘Ring of Fire’ (1953)

Written by June Carter Cash with Merle Kilgore, Cash popularised ‘Ring of Fire’ in 1963, and it remains one of his most iconic songs. Although, it was first released by June’s sister Anita on her 1963 album Folk Songs Old and New, entitled ‘(Love’s) Ring of Fire’.

After ‘The Man in Black’ heard Anita’s version, he claimed that he had a dream where he heard the song featuring Mexican horns. After this strange encounter, Cash told 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 added the iconic mariachi style horns and tinkered with a few of the original phrases from Anita Carter’s version, and it would become a number one hit, and one of the biggest of his career. To this day, it has had over a million digital downloads and rightly remains a country classic. 

1970s – ‘What Is Truth’ (1970)

This 1970 classic is indicative of Cash’s standing as the man of the people. Written and recorded by Cash in 1970, it is hailed as a legendary protest song, something that was truly unheard of in country music at the time. Its criticism of the devastating Vietnam War and generation gap made the song a major crossover hit, thrusting Cash into the arms of the younger generation who had hitherto never given him much of a chance. 

It wasn’t just the song that made Cash a countercultural hero either, it was what he did with it. In the summer of 1972, Cash found himself sitting in front of President Richard Nixon in the White House’s Blue Room. Visiting for a discussion on prison reform, Cash and Nixon were accompanied by a legion of press and photographers, not wanting to miss out on this titanic convergence. 

At one point, after hearing Nixon talk about his favourite songs, Cash said: “I don’t know those songs. But I got a few of my own I can play for you.” It’s here that we imagine Nixon’s face dropped as Cash, without blinking an eye, launched into ‘What Is Truth’—coloured by the power of youth and freedom. The track went a little further to embarrass the President as the second verse is aggressively anti-war, considering Nixon’s belligerent position at the time, it was a giant thumb to the nose. 

A significant moment in Cash’s career, ‘What Is Truth’ has to be his finest song of the ‘70s.

1980s – ‘I’d Rather Have You’ (1987)

People often say that Cash lost his way in the ’80s, but he didn’t. Although he departed from longtime label Columbia, Cash then moved to their rivals, Mercury, and it provided some stellar points. Interestingly, this is the least explored part of Cash’s long career, by which point it had been rumbling on for well over 30 years. A true veteran at this point, his first album for Columbia, 1987’s Johnny Cash Is Coming To Town, is full of brilliant moments, including nods to Hank Williams and Elvis Costello. 

Without a doubt though, ‘I’d Rather Have You’ is the best from this period. Something of a traditional country love song, this is one of the best odes to all things Cupid that Cash ever released, featuring some of his best lyricism. Lines such as these confirm both Cash’s lyrical brilliance and his humble nature: “I’d rather share a hotdog with you than dinner with the president / Offer me a castle on a mountain top, I’ll take you in a tent.”

1990s – ‘Delia’s Gone’ (1994)

Cash originally recorded this Karl Silbersdord and Dick Toops penned murder ballad all the way back in 1962 for The Sound of Johnny Cash. The song is based on the unsolved brutal murder of the 14-year-old African-American girl, Delia Green in 1900. Green’s murder has inspired countless songs from Bob Dylan to Harry Belafonte, but Cash’s has to take the top spot. Cash opted to re-record the track in 1994 for his Rick Rubin-produced return to form, American Recordings

Explaining why he chose to redo it, he said: “‘Delia’s Gone’ is the Devil’s deed of daring… We were talking about ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ – and ‘I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die’ – and I said, ‘I want another song like that.’ So Rick and I started listening and we found ‘Delia’s Gone.’ We realised I had recorded it in the ’60s, but not the way I’ve recorded it on American, and that I should work it up and do it over. So we started working on it and we did it and we came up with this version.”

2000s – ‘The Man Comes Around’ (2002)

The title track from Johnny Cash’s 2002 album, the song was actually written a few years prior to the release of The Man Comes Around, but Cash updated it for the album. One of the last songs ‘The Man in Black’ written before his death, this is one of the most uplifting but emotionally affecting songs he ever wrote.

Notably it contains numerous Biblical references, including a passage that describes the coming of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Featuring a sparse arrangement, this was Johnny Cash at his very best. Backed by a celestial sounding electric organ, it really feels as if Cash was delivering his last sermon. 

The song was also partially inspired by Queen Elizabeth II of England. In another one of Cash’s scarily prophetic dreams, the queen compared him to “a thorn tree in a whirlwind”. Haunted by this, Cash was curious as to whether he’d read the phrase before, and eventually found a similar one in the Book of Job.