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Music

The John Prine lyric that Johnny Cash couldn't sing

It’s hard to find two more transcendent figures in country music than Johnny Cash and John Prine. Cash was a 1950s rockabilly type and gospel music acolyte, bringing a dark humbleness that never felt like it was confined to, or born from, the traditional country cowboy. In his songwriting, Prine was more methodical and intellectual, putting twists on classic country motifs by incorporating folk idioms, hippie concepts, and stark realities of war, poverty, and human suffering.

The two men had great admiration for each other: the two traded covers frequently, finding in each other kindred spirits who weren’t afraid to take a look at the seedy underbelly of folk, rock, and country styles. “Johnny Cash was like Abraham Lincoln to me,” Prine said in an interview with Associated Press in 2017. He didn’t need to clarify or extrapolate for you to know exactly what he meant by this.

That’s not to say that the two singers always saw eye to eye. Prine’s debut album included a song called ‘Sam Stone’, which told the tale of a Vietnam veteran left behind by his country once he returns and left to suffer a cruel fate as a drug addict. It’s gone down as one of Prine’s greatest songs of all time.

As one might imagine, with its visceral imagery and pointed narrative, Cash wanted to add the song to his live set. However, there was one issue with The Man in Black taking on the track; there was a line that he couldn’t bring himself to sing.

“Johnny was having trouble singing the part about ‘Jesus Christ died for nothing, I suppose'”. Cash, a deeply religious man, understood the symbolism behind the statement but was hesitant to make such a blasphemous remark, especially under the spotlight of the stage. “I said ‘Well, you know, it’s the heart of the song for me. Everything in the song kind of fell out of that one line.'”

“I said ‘I know where I’m coming from when I say that. It just means that there’s no hope: if a veteran’s going to come home and be treated like that and no one’s going to help him with his drug habit, then what’s the use in living?'” Prine didn’t want to change the line, but found a compromise by asking Cash if he wanted to say anything about his father. The line before the one referencing Jesus Christ says, “There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes.”

Cash decided to keep the focus on the father figure of the song by changing the line to “Daddy must have hurt a lot back then, I suppose,” which, while not as powerfully symbolic as Prine’s, fit Cash’s sensibilities to a greater degree. “I figured, ‘That’s Johnny Cash’. All I figure is that he’s singing my song,” Prine reflected years later.