Johnny Cash was a complex man. The Man in Black, one of the most influential country music stars of the 20th century, was the son of a farmer and was raised during the height of the Great Depression. A deeply religious man, Cash originally wanted to sing gospel music, but his first label didn’t see the market for it. However, gospel influences and religious messages would permeate the rest of Cash’s career.
Over the years, Cash’s fame waxed and waned, sometimes coinciding with his personal struggles and addiction. One of the most memorable upswings actually happened later in his career, as Cash began collaborating with legendary producer Rick Rubin. The American Recordings, starting with the Grammy award-winning first in 1994 and concluding with the 2010’s American VI: Ain’t No Grave included a range of covers. Throughout his career, Cash often cited his faith as a source of strength, and even in his choices of covers, these themes of redemption and reinvention reappear. As such, here are the 10 best covers by Johnny Cash.
10. “I Hung My Head”
Sting’s original song has a certain country inflection to it, as well as a very solid narrative structure. The tune takes an ambling easy pace, as Sting sings the story and a trumpet and trombone join in for an interlude.
In Cash’s hands, however, the song escalates to the next level of country inflection. From little things like the dropped “g” in “run,” to the particular extension of the vowels, the accent of the words brings the song to a place farther west. The low mournful tones in Cash’s iteration of “I hung my head,” add a darker drama to the song. It’s a story song about regret and redemption, and nobody sings regret and redemption like Johnny Cash.
9. “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”
This tune is based on a traditional folk song called “John Brown’s Body” that was sung by Union soldiers. Julia Ward Howe, a writer and advocate of abolition (if not equality) made the tune more political when she added lyrics. The reframed words reinforced the concept of the Civil War as an ideological conflict. And the song served as a motivational tool for fighting in a war that would become the bloodiest conflict in United States history, a reminder that these “these dead shall not have died in vain.”
This song is very much in the Cash repertoire in that it could use music to highlight a moral wrong and the plight of the vulnerable. The song has been sung in many ways that might be called trite or overwrought if operatic choirs aren’t your thing. Cash’s gravelly voice and steely resolution return gravitas to the tune, and are more in line with the song’s origin as tune for the road, sung by average marching men to pass the time before they risk their lives.
8. “Redemption Song”
In a somewhat unexpected turn, Johnny Cash partners with musician Joe Strummer, of The Clash, for a duet interpretation of “Redemption Song.” With Bob Marley’s reggae rhythm and pacing replaced by a slower more ambling speed, the song reaches a different tone than the original. It’s a thoughtful reinterpretation that calls for a further examination of the meaning of the words, as Cash speaks them and calls them into focus.
7. “Personal Jesus”
Depeche Mode’s original version of “Personal Jesus” includes the heavy use of some effects and altered vocal tones. Cash’s take is lower and simpler. The instrumentals are quieter with an upbeat keyboard featuring in the background. Plus, Cash’s intentional pauses add a particular weight to the tune; his enunciation on phrases like “flesh and bone” harken back his early country origins. For a man as outspokenly religious as Cash, the song takes on an additional layer of depth.
6. “You Are My Sunshine”
Jimmie Davis and Charles Mitchell are the credited authors of “You Are My Sunshine,” but the full origin may be somewhat ambiguous. The song has been sung in a wide variety of ways from a saccharine nursery rhyme to Cash’s particular take. Cash’s cover is very simple with only picked strings and Cash’s distinct voice. His voice is low and rich, with a booming quality that undercuts the potential weaknesses in lines like “you are my sunshine.” His voice paints a picture of the kind of storm that could leave you with that depth of longing for sunshine. Fun fact: Katy Perry also samples Cash’s cover at the end of “The One That Got Away,” which adds a sober note to the end of the distinctly pop tune.
The original U2 cover of this song has a slow groovy tone matched with Bono’s distinct voice— smooth, but a bit flashy. Cash’s cover is plainer one, relying on simple guitar strumming and picking. The sound is light and airy, a sharp contrast to Cash’s low gravely tone in this tone. The growling timber in his voice adds a particular sincerity to the tone.
The song itself is in the range of Cash’s common repertoire. It’s a song of regret, love, and redemption. There are lines in the song with religious undertones in its references to seeking forgiveness, as well as more direct statements like, “have you come here to play Jesus to the lepers in your head.” The song’s religious undertones are little more generous and less condemnatory than those in something like “God’s Gonna Cut You Down.”
4. “God’s Gonna Cut You Down”
This is a traditional folk song that’s also known as “Run On” and “Run On for a Long Time.” Both titles are quotes from the song. The song has been sung in a variety of ways (check out Odetta’s version on Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues—a fast-tempo, vocal-only version that highlights the strength of her voice). But Cash moves at a more ambling pace. It includes lightly picked guitar and a relentless stamping and clapping sound. Cash sings in a higher range than for the verses than in some of his other songs. There is a tremble in his voice he didn’t have in his earlier years and it adds depth to the moments that his voice takes hold of the lower notes.
3. “In My Life”
One of the most beloved Beatles songs, “In My Life” flowed gracefully with smooth harmonies and easy snare hits. They sang from an introspective place, contemplating on what they had accomplished thus far and who and where mattered most. Cash’s version is even slower paced, though, and he sings from a different perspective. The song was released a year before his death and his voice had changed from time and disease. There is a hesitantly convincing vulnerability to the tone of his voice. The young Beatles would have sung a line like, “I know I’ll never lose affection for people and things that went before,” like a resolution. For Cash, at this point in his life, it could be stated as truth.
2. “Won’t Back Down”
If Tom Petty’s ” Won’t Back Down,” is summer drive on a sunny afternoon, radio up and the windows down, then Cash’s cover is four-wheel drive on a dark road through a thunderstorm. Petty sings with his puckish twang as steady beats groove along in the background. His vocals are paced with a certain staccato quality that makes this tune unique. The “hey baby” lines come out with a glossy glimmer.
Cash’s cover is easy strumming paired with a very different inflection than Petty. His vocal method is a low rumble of resolution. The weathered tones in his voice really come out for lines like “stand my ground.” For the chorus, his voice stretches heavy over the extended vowels but they carry a deeper sense of certainty.
Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails was originally somewhat ambiguous about a Johnny Cash cover of his song, apparently worrying it would be gimmicky. The song was personal to him and he was hesitant to have it inhabited by another. Reznor’s original version of the song uses a smooth sad tone, stretching high tones, with an electric guitar and technical effects.
Cash’s version is truly transformative, though. He plays an acoustic guitar and sings in a voice that is low and close to breaking at times, but ultimately relentless. The lines about “an empire of dirt” carry a greater weight from a man surrounded by a derelict museum of treasures and burdened by a long life of addiction and recovery. Reznor’s line about a “crown of shit” is transformed here to a “crown of thorns,” a line that Cash carries well.
Additionally, the video for “Hurt” contributes to the cover’s legacy. It largely takes place in Cash’s home and museum, “The House of Cash,” and features close-ups of Cash as he was in various times in his life. He is frail, but resolute, and surrounded by signs and symbols of his vast legacy.