The 20 Best Songs From Johnny Cash’s American Recordings Series |

The 20 Best Songs From Johnny Cash’s American Recordings Series

April 26th marked 30 years since Johnny Cash dropped the first installment of his American Recordings series on an unexpecting public. Harder to believe is that the Man in Black has already been at his Maker’s side for two of those decades. When hip-hop/hard rock producer Rick Rubin first approached Cash about recording for American Recordings, the aging country icon was an artist without a label or creative purpose. Together, their unlikely partnership yielded a string of inspired, award-winning albums that once again made Cash a vital voice in contemporary music.

Looking back, we understand that these recordings did more than just resurrect Cash’s career; they sustained the man himself through serious illness, the death of his beloved wife, June Carter Cash, and the toll of his own final days. These songs, mostly covers handpicked by Cash and Rubin, deal in remorse, redemption and salvation in this life and the next. They came to Cash from everyone from Hank Williams and Dolly Parton to Nick Cave and Trent Reznor. What they all have in common, though, is that in the hands of Cash and Rubin, they ended up becoming Johnny Cash songs. In that spirit, here are 20 songs from the American Recordings series that managed to leap through that burning ring of fire and walk the line on their way to becoming essential pieces of Cash’s artistic legacy.

20. “Redemption Song (with Joe Strummer)” (Unearthed, Vol. 3: Redemption Songs, 2003)

On the surface, Johnny Cash and ex-Clash frontman Joe Strummer may seem like a strange pairing. However, it makes a lot more sense as the two begin swapping verses on this Bob Marley anthem. Strummer, like much of the punk community, had admired and embraced Cash at a time when the country world had largely turned its back on him. After all, part of Cash’s gift was his ability to sincerely inhabit the struggles of others (the working class, prisoners, Native Americans, etc.) via his music. Here, he and Strummer take on the ongoing plight of Marley’s people and turn it personal by considering what they have left to offer others in their remaining time. Sadly, both Cash and Strummer would be gone by the time this song got released on the Unearthed box set.

Classic Cash: “But my hand was made strong / By the hand of the Almighty / We forward in this generation / Triumphantly.”

19. “Like the 309” (American V: A Hundred Highways, 2006)

There was never a shortage of train songs in Johnny Cash’s repertoire over the years. In fact, it was “Hey, Porter,” a song about a train ride home to Tennessee, that convinced Sun Records’ Sam Phillips not to dismiss Cash as just an unmarketable gospel act. In that respect, “Like the 309,” the last song Cash wrote and his next-to-last recording, feels like a perfect bookend as the bluesy rambler finds the dying musician youthful and “higher than a Georgia pine” at the prospect of riding the rails one last time. It’s a fitting end to an artist who rode in on a train and roared like a locomotive throughout his six-decade career.

Classic Cash: “Take me to the depot / Put me to bed / Blow an electric fan on my gnarly, old head / Everybody take a look / See I’m doing fine / Then load my box on the 309.”

18. “Personal Jesus” (American IV: The Man Comes Around, 2002)

A large part of the appeal of the American Recordings series is that Cash and Rubin left few sections in the record store unturned when searching for songs to cover. Casting such a wide, open-minded net led to unlikely moments—like the country icon covering English synth-pop titans Depeche Mode, with Cash taking away a totally different interpretation of their hit song “Personal Jesus.” While songwriter Martin Gore wrote the song as a caution about deifying one’s lover, Cash considered the lyrics from an evangelical bent. “That’s probably the most evangelical song I’ve ever recorded,” reflected Cash. “I don’t know that the writer ever meant it to be that, but that’s what it is.” Mix in some boogie piano and a stripped-down blues riff courtesy of Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante, and this Saturday night banger becomes fit for Sunday morning hymnals.

Classic Cash: “Feeling unknown / And you’re all alone / Flesh and bone / By the telephone / Lift up the receiver / I’ll make you a believer.”

17. “Like a Soldier” (American Recordings, 1994)

Salvation comes in many forms. In “Like a Soldier,” Cash’s protagonist looks back on a lifetime of hard living and embraces the peace he’s found as an older man at the end of that troublesome road. Some might say the hand that reached out and lifted him up was the Lord’s; others might say his savior was a good woman or even life’s hard-earned wisdom. Regardless of your interpretation, this breezy, little ramble proves subtly profound and captures some of Cash’s finest lyrical table setting: “With the twilight colors fallin’ / And the evening layin’ shadows / Hidden memories come stealin’ from my mind.” A duet of “Like a Soldier” with Willie Nelson appears on 2003’s Unearthed compilation, but the Red Headed Stranger’s harmonies add little to The Man in Black’s look back on crazy days.

Classic Cash: “I’m just thankful for the journey / And that I survived the battles / And that my spoil of victory is you.”

16. “Rose of My Heart” (American V: A Hundred Highways, 2006)

June Carter Cash died in May of 2003 due to complications from heart surgery. In the hospital, she famously told Cash, her husband of 35 years, to finish his work. Cash would spend the next (and last) four months of his life feverishly recording what would become the songs found on the posthumous fifth and sixth albums of his American Recordings series. Given the timing, it’s hard not to think of Hugh Moffatt’s waltzing “Rose of My Heart,” tucked away near the back of A Hundred Highways, as a nod and ode to June. “We’re the best partners this world’s ever seen,” the song tenderly begins. “But sometimes it’s hard to find time in between / To tell you what you mean to me.” Luckily, Cash found enough time here to tell June one more time.

Classic Cash: “When sorrow holds you in its arms with clay / It’s raindrops that fall from your eyes / Your smile is the sun come to Earth for a day / You brighten my blackest of skies.”

15. “Rowboat” (American II: Unchained, 1996)

I’m sure there’s a universe where twentysomething slacker Beck thought Johnny Cash and his de facto band, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, might record one of his lo-fi country songs; there’s just no way he could’ve imagined it’d be in the one we actually live in. But Cash and co. lean right into this bit of down-and-out country fuzz about pining for the girl with whom you’re on the outs. Cash lends his still-considerable boom to the chorus’ call to “Pick me up,” as his band rolls like the song’s titular rowboat. It’s reminiscent of Cash and his old-time Tennessee backing bands taking simple tunes and ratcheting them up a notch or ten.

Classic Cash: “Rowboat, row me to the shore / She don’t want to be my friend no more / She dug a hole in the bottom of my soul / She is all, and everything else is small.”

14. “Help Me” (American V: A Hundred Highways, 2006)

There’s a long musical tradition of getting down on bended knee and asking for God’s help. Johnny Cash once confessed that he laid down in the belly of a cave during the height of his substance abuse, not knowing whether he would be left to die or be lifted up and saved. On Larry Gatlin’s “Help Me,” a gospel song Cash had first recorded several versions of back in 1973, a weary man turns to God for succor after failing at going it alone. The song takes on added heft with Cash knowing that he was nearing the end of his days, his voice tender, vulnerable and breaking as he humbly begs for guidance. It’s one of the most delicate performances recorded in this series and also one of the most moving. Gatlin fittingly played the song at the funerals of both June Carter and Cash.

Classic Cash: “Oh, come down from Your golden throne to me, to lowly me / I need to feel the touch of Your tender hand / Release the chains of darkness / Let me see, Lord let me see / Just where I fit into Your masterplan.”

13. “The Beast in Me” (American Recordings, 1994)

Rick Rubin had never intended Johnny Cash’s Tennessee cabin, or his own Los Angeles living room for that matter, to become the de facto recording studios for their first album together. But as the producer tried adding backing, he soon recognized that Cash alone with his voice and guitar made for the most compelling takes. There’s no better example than this cover of English singer-songwriter and producer Nick Lowe’s Jekyll and Hyde confessional “The Beast in Me.” With his signature bass baritone still able to boom and growl, Cash owns up to the eternal emotional struggle he faces and the vigilance it requires to tame the darker parts of his nature. Several live performances of the song capture just how powerful Cash was alone on stage before his health made him retire from touring.

Classic Cash: “The beast in me has had to learn to live with pain / And how to shelter from the rain / And in the twinkling of an eye might have to be restrained.”

12. “I’m a Drifter (Version 1)” (Unearthed, Vol. 2: Trouble in Mind, 2003)

There’s a popular adage that once Johnny Cash covers your song, it’s not yours anymore. The American Recordings series definitely saw the Man in Black stake his claim to a number of songs through transcendent performances; however, it sometimes gets forgotten that this project was just as much about great songwriters of the past and present lifting up Cash when he needed it most. Dolly Parton’s 1976 deep cut “I’m a Drifter” fits that bill perfectly. Parton’s prolific songwriting often gets overlooked due to her oversized persona and even larger spirit of generosity, but here she lends Cash a song about being neither here nor there that feels as much like a Johnny Cash song as any other in this series. It’s a gift that Cash doesn’t waste and even recorded multiple versions of.

Classic Cash: “Got no strings to tie me down / Got no cause to hang around / What difference does it make which way I go?”

11. “One” (American III: Solitary Man, 2000)

American III: Solitary Man finds Cash and Rubin fumbling around a bit, as they reimagine their project following several diagnoses of diabetes-related issues that derailed Cash’s touring—not to mention pneumonia that damaged his lungs. If you compare Solitary Man to its predecessors, you can clearly hear that Cash’s voice is indeed a different animal. Still, while a couple covers don’t fork the same lightning they might have prior to these changes, the duo refuse to back down and find fresh, fertile ground to till. U2’s mega-hit “One” lands the first big impression. Bono’s song about a couple (or people in general) having no choice but to endure together despite differences, in Cash’s hands, transforms into a pledge to personally carry on in the face of the gauntlet life has thrown at him. It’s a defiant moment that would lead to a rich musical harvest over the last few years of his life.

Classic Cash: “Have you come here for forgiveness? / Have you come to raise the dead? / Have you come here to play Jesus / To the lepers in your head?”

10. “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” (American V: A Hundred Highways, 2006)

There always seemed to be more compassion than fire and brimstone to Johnny Cash’s faith. His songs spoke more of personal redemption than fiery retribution. Here, though, we find Cash—from three years beyond the grave no less—leveling a clapping, stomping PSA to sinners that the other dusty boot will eventually drop and that God doesn’t miss his mark. It’s a caution to get right while there’s still time, but even more so “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” reminds us that, even while knocking at Death’s door, Cash still possessed the power to shake windows and rattle walls with that God-given gift of a voice. It’s also worth checking out the song’s 2006 who’s-who music video, which features everyone from Iggy Pop and Jay-Z to Chris Rock and Sharon Stone paying tribute to the late Man in Black.

Classic Cash: “He spoke to me in the voice so sweet / I thought I heard the shuffle of angels’ feet / He called my name, and my heart stood still / When he said, ‘John, go do my will!’”

9. “I Never Picked Cotton” (American II: Unchained, 1996)

For starters, Johnny Cash did indeed pick cotton on his father’s Dyess, Arkansas, farm during the Great Depression. It was those early days of singing in the fields that instilled in Cash a love of songs and revealed his singular voice—what his mother called “the gift.” Those humble beginnings would imbue him with a lifelong compassion for the working class and make this Roy Clark hit about living on one’s own terms a natural choice. Tom Petty’s nasally twang on the adamant choruses adds the perfect flavor to this wild romp out of the fields and into the gallows.

Classic Cash: “I made myself a promise / When I was old enough to run / That I’d never stay a single day in that Oklahoma sun.”

8. “For the Good Times” (American VI: Ain’t No Grave, 2010)

If we’re honest, American VI: Ain’t No Grave was a bit of a letdown. That might be due in part to the songs on the record having been compiled nearly a decade after Cash recorded them. Among the handful of highlights is Cash’s rendering of his old pal Kris Kristofferson’s “For the Good Times.” Back in 1970, after Kristofferson, a pilot, landed his helicopter on Cash’s lawn with demos in hand, Cash scored a #1 hit with the young aviator-songwriter’s “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down.” On “For the Good Times,” Cash’s heartbroken protagonist opts to remember the better days of a relationship and asks to spend one last night together for old time’s sake. The song drips with tenderness and resignation as Cash once again proves that all he needed to tug at heartstrings was a gentle strum and that voice.

Classic Cash: “Lay your head upon my pillow / Hold your warm and tender body close to mine / Hear the whisper of the raindrops blowin’ soft against the window / And make believe you love me one more time / For the good times.”

7. “The Mercy Seat” (American III: Solitary Man, 2000)

There’s no telling where you might stumble upon a Johnny Cash song out in the wild. Case in point: Nick Cave’s menacing “The Mercy Seat” feels like the perfect confluence of Cash themes: sin and forgiveness, crime and punishment and an agitated exhaustion with the inconclusiveness of the whole damn struggle. Cash sounds completely dialed in here as Cave’s condemned protagonist, from the song’s death-row preamble to its meditations on Christ to the mantra of the final, hypnotic build as the “mercy seat” heats up and piano plinks like sparks. It feels like Cash finds strength and conviction in his voice here at a time when his own had begun to deteriorate. Call it a gift from one man in black to another.

Classic Cash: “An eye for an eye / And a tooth for a tooth / And, anyway, I told the truth / And I’m not afraid to die.”

6. “The Man Comes Around” (American IV: The Man Comes Around, 2002)

This labor of love was one of the last songs Cash ever wrote and was inspired by, of all things, a dream he had in which Queen Elizabeth II compared him to a “thorn tree in a whirlwind.” From there, Cash claims to have written between 25 and 30 verses, trying to nail down this jubilant march to Judgement Day. Brimming with Biblical allusions to the Book of Revelation, Cash sounds the good word (for the repentant) over chugging guitar clicks with a joyful fervor that only a man of faith might have. As Cash circles the wagons around seals of trumpeters, pipers, kettle drummers and angels bursting forth by the million, the end of times never sounded like such a hopeful hoedown.

Classic Cash: “The hairs on your arm will stand up / At the terror in each sip and in each sup / Will you partake of that last offered cup / Or disappear into the potter’s ground? / When the man comes around.”

5. “Rusty Cage” (American II: Unchained, 1996)

Rick Rubin’s choice to bring in Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers as Cash’s de facto backing band hinged upon his instinct to not double down on the stripped-down formula that had made 1994’s American Recordings such a striking success. Additionally, American II: Unchained saw Cash and Rubin take a chance on a few songs that nobody would peg as potential Johnny Cash covers. Enter Soundgarden’s “Rusty Cage.” Suddenly, Cash was not only covering grunge but a song whose music video had appeared in an episode of Beavis and Butt-Head. Cash barking out Chris Cornell’s hellish junkyard imagery and vowing to break free and flee over splintering guitar and a filthy breakdown touched a serious nerve. Enough so that Cash earned a Grammy nomination for Best Male Country Vocal Performance.

Classic Cash: “When the forest burns along the road / Like God’s eyes in my headlights.”

4. “Bird on a Wire” (American Recordings, 1994)

There is a flock of “Bird on a Wire” covers out there. There’s just something about the song’s simplicity and poetic economy that make it rich clay in the hands of a capable artist. That said, Cash seemed to find a kindred spirit in Leonard Cohen, whose songs so often thumb for a ride at the crossroads where spirituality and human nature break down. Cash’s bass baritone rumbles like an old church organ here as he sifts through the ways he’s fallen short along the way, his voice lifting up as he ponders his mistakes and deflating again as he promises to atone. In the end, the best he can do is offer a spiritual IOU, but damned if he isn’t trying to square things.

Classic Cash: “Like a bird on a wire / Like a drunk in a midnight choir / I have tried in my way to be free.”

3. “I’ve Been Everywhere” (American II: Unchained, 1996)

Listen: This song’s been everywhere, man. It was written by Australian country singer Geoff Mack in 1959 (where it was an Aussie hit for Lucky Star in the early ‘60s) and has since been covered more than 130 times, with its toponyms being adapted to everywhere from New Zealand and North American to Czechoslovakia and Thailand. When Cash covered it in the old days, he played it up for comedic effect (often with a singing partner), exchanging banter (“I think I spent a week in Stockholm, Mississippi, for picking flowers or something…”) and rattling off town names like a parlor trick. Decades later, Cash’s take sounds less like a hitchhiker’s humorous response and more a matter-of-fact reflection on a life of high adventure and hard-earned miles on the road. It also proved that Cash in his mid-‘60s could still spit verses as well as any of the all-time great rappers Rubin had worked with over the years.

Classic Cash: “I’ve been everywhere, man / Crossed the deserts bare, man / I’ve breathed the mountain air, man / Of travel I’ve had my share, man / I’ve been everywhere.”

2. “If You Could Read My Mind” (American V: A Hundred Highways, 2006)

On a lyric sheet, Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind” might seem a bit out of Cash’s wheelhouse. Then you get a few lines into this performance, which stages a crumbling relationship in the world of old movies and paperbacks, and you realize Cash is entirely in his element. His hushed, trembling voice conjures up every ounce of sweetness, confusion and devastation Lightfoot’s protagonist feels as he tries to understand where the couple fell short. This is such a masterful song placed in the hands of a man who had lived out so much of the same heartbreak in his earlier days. “If You Could Read My Mind” ends up at #2 on this list but is second to none when it comes to the emotional depth and breadth that Cash breathed into it during his final recording sessions.

Classic Cash: “I don’t know where we went wrong / But the feeling’s gone / And I just can’t get it back.”

1. “Hurt” (American IV: The Man Comes Around, 2002)

There are no cute surprises at the top of this list. It’s nearly impossible to talk about the life and musical legacy of Johnny Cash without discussing his crushing rendition of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt.” Cash didn’t initially hear the potential in covering the song, but Rubin nudged him multiple times, believing the lyrics were a profound fit for Cash, even if the genre felt at odds. Chalk another one up to the bearded guru. In Cash’s voice, “Hurt” (along with its haunting music video) becomes an unnerving, pounding meditation on pain, loss and regret, the Man in Black seemingly laying bare his soul at his most frail and vulnerable. Perhaps, the greatest compliment to this recording comes from Trent Reznor himself, who, upon reflecting on Cash’s version, bequeathed, “That song isn’t mine anymore.”

Classic Cash: “I wear this crown of thorns / Upon my liar’s chair / Full of broken thoughts / I cannot repair.”

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