It seems unlikely that many people will be starting from scratch when it comes to Johnny Cash. His presence is so wide and deep in our culture by this point that most of us have started with him, whether we like it or not, just by virtue of being alive in the United States in the early 21st century.
With that in mind—and inspired by the latest biography of the Man in Black, Johnny Cash: The Life by Robert Hilburn, which I review in the Slate Book Review today—I’ve devised a two-tiered set of recommendations. If you’ve never heard a lick of Cash at all, or don’t know that you have, check out the first 10 cuts below. But for those already familiar with the basics, I’ve selected a second set of 10, to lead you further into the songbook of the country icon. You’ll find all 20 in a Spotify playlist at the bottom of this post.
“Folsom Prison Blues” (With His Hot and Blue Guitar, 1956)
Swiped from a Gordon Jenkins recording, but the changes Cash made coincide precisely with all the parts that matter: the record’s imprisoned protagonist, for starters, and the man’s crime (he “shot a man in Reno just to watch him die”) most of all.
“I Walk the Line” (With His Hot and Blue Guitar, 1956)
Cash’s first crossover hit finds him claiming that it’s “very, very easy to be true.” His voice, though, reveals fidelity to be very hard indeed. Those hums between verses sound like a man struggling mightily to keep his moral balance.
“Ring of Fire” (1963)
Written by June Carter (with Merle Kilgore) about the dangers of falling in love with Johnny Cash. It’s telling that Cash’s version of her song makes that danger sound like a fiesta.
“The Ballad of Ira Hayes” (Columbia, 1964)
This Pete LaFarge-written tragedy, Cash’s first explicitly political recording, was a clear-eyed look at American racism that, in the year of the Civil Rights Act, echoed beyond the lyric’s detailing of bigotry toward its Native American title character.
“Jackson” (Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, 1968)
The 1967 studio version of the duet by Cash and June Carter was the hit, but this live version sets the fussin’ and feudin’ country standard. June dances on a pony keg in a gargled growl that sounds as if she’s inventing death metal vocals on the spot, and when she and Johnny’s shouted harmonies collide on the final chorus, it rocks like a hurricane.
“Daddy Sang Bass” (The Holy Land, 1968)
When this song was on the radio, it only felt like this Carl Perkins-composition must have already been around forever. But thanks to this timeless record, featuring vocals from the Statler Brothers and the latter day Carter Family, someday that feeling is going to be true.
“A Boy Named Sue” (Live at San Quentin, 1969)
Cut live at San Quentin prison, this Shel Silverstein song is a hilarious coming-of-age saga. It is also, as my colleague Bill Friskics-Warren once wrote, “a thinly veiled allegory about how communication, even to the point of conflict, is the best way to … bridge the generation gap.”
“Sunday Morning Coming Down” (The Johnny Cash Show, 1970)
With dawn’s-light orchestral backing from arranger Bill Walker, Cash’s reading of this hungover Kris Kristofferson ballad, recorded live on Cash’s TV show, walks a hard line between country’s Saturday-night-and-Sunday-morning divide.
“Big River” (1958)
Cash and his Tennessee Two are at their most rocking here, on what stands as the first sighting of Johnny Cash, larger-than-life folk hero: He cried so many tears, he’s flooded the Mississippi!
“There You Go” (1957)
Though relatively unknown these days, “There You Go” was an important hit for Cash at the time. This deeply cynical take on being true (“Another guy gives you the eye, and there you go”) was his second consecutive hit to top the country chart for over a month, marking his transition from up-and-comer to big-time star.
“Frankie’s Man, Johnny” (The Fabulous Johnny Cash, 1959)
Cash’s updating of the folk ballad “Frankie and Johnny” hints at part of what June found dangerous about him: “He was a long-legged-guitar picker with a wicked wanderin’ eye.”
“What’d I Say” (Carryin’ on with Johnny Cash & June Carter, 1967)
Johnny and June’s cover of the Ray Charles classic is by turns a goofy lark and a you-can’t-believe-they-released-it train wreck. Either way, it is weird and wonderful.
“That’s Enough” (The Fabulous Johnny Cash, 1959)
Cash left Sun Records in part because he wanted to record gospel sides, an impulse that is key to understanding all of his music, religious-themed or not. “You may scorn me, turn your back on me,” he snarls in this rockabilly gospel cover of a Dorothy Love Coates number. So what if the world turns its back? His Lord is “a great emancipator, a heart regulator” who “fights down the devil till He makes him give up.”
“One Piece at a Time” (One Piece at a Time, 1976)
Cash’s version of Merle Haggard’s “Working Man Blues,” except it’s set to a laugh track, borrows the melody from “Hot Rod Lincoln,” and, most importantly, stars a working man who winds up the winner.
“Singing in Viet Nam Talking Blues” (Columbia, 1971)
Inspired by USO trips Cash and his show made to Vietnam during the war, specifically their seeing the dead and wounded, and hearing shells and bombs exploding through the night. Unforgettable lines: “[June] said, ‘I’m scared.” I said, ‘Me too.’ ”