Nicknamed “The Man in Black,” Johnny Cash is a country music icon.
His signature baritone voice and fast guitar rhythm ushered in a new style of music that took the country genre from family-oriented, feel-good ballads to outlaw anthems and rock-and-roll-tinged hits. Singles like ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ and ‘I Walk the Line’ put Cash on the map, while his duet work with wife June Carter made them one of music’s most treasured couples.
From his popular releases like ‘Jackson’ to his decade-defying last single release ‘Hurt’, here is a ranked list of the best Johnny Cash songs.
Table of Contents
10. The Man Comes Around
Cash spent the last several years of his life recording a series of works focused on America’s unique way of life. Released in an anthology-style format, ‘The Man Comes Around’ appears on his installment, American IV. Inspiration for the song came to the aging songwriter in a dream where a queen tells him, “…you’re just like a thorn tree in a whirlwind.” Cash found meaning in this statement from a passage in the book of Job, which sparked his writing of the song dealing with judgment day. The spoken word intro and outro set a powerful tone, with acoustic-based instrumentation backing Cash’s calloused vocal lines.
9. God’s Gonna Cut You Down
Though Johnny Cash maintained an outlaw persona, he was a deeply spiritual man. Themes involving faith were often included in his work, especially in his later recordings. For ‘God’s Gonna Cut You Down,’ an American folk standard dating all the way back to the mid-’40s, Cash draws on his fire and brimstone appeal in the haunting track. The enduring single focuses on God’s vengeance and the inability for those who do evil to outrun his punishment.
8. (Ghost) Riders in the Sky
“An old cowboy went riding out, one dark and windy day.” It is said all great adventures begin with a knock at the door or a man going out on a journey. For this cowboy epic, which dates all the way back to 1948, songwriter Stan Jones sends his cowboy character out as stormy weather approaches. Told in the form of a mythical tale, the story centers around cowboys who are forced to parlay with demonic cattle of the underworld. Despite the tune being titled ‘(Ghost) Riders in the Sky,’ the plot revolves around dark themes associated with hell. Johnny Cash was one of many to record a cover, with his becoming a go-to recording for fans of the eerie tale.
7. Girl from the North Country
Fans loved it when Johnny Cash collaborated with Bob Dylan in 1969 on live TV. For several years, Cash headed up The Johnny Cash Show, a primetime series that hosted live performers like Neil Young and Eric Clapton. When Cash had Dylan on, the folk songwriter got two solo tunes under his belt before The Man in Black joined him on stage for a duo performance of Dylan’s ‘Girl from North Country.’ They would later step in the studio and record the pensive ballad for Dylan’s album Nashville Skyline. The collab (and show) helped solidify Cash as a pop culture heavyweight rather than just a country star, which is why the single comes in at number seven on our list.
Singer-songwriter Jimmy Webb sprang out of bed one night, drenched in sweat after having a whiskey-induced vivid dream about an outlaw riding a getaway train with the police hot on his tail. Bleary-eyed and trying to shake off that last bit of alcohol, he sat down at his piano and spent the rest of the night working out the first verse to ‘Highwayman,’ the adventurous song inspired by his dream. As the song took shape, several characters became a part of the story, a lone-wolf cowboy type, a worker on the Hoover Dam, an astronaut, and a sailor. Though Webb released the single and Glen Campbell even tried to release his own version with Capitol Records, it was the supergroup The Highwaymen, made up of songwriting greats Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, and Waylon Jennings, who would launch the track to country music hall of fame status.
First penned by songwriter Billy Edd Wheeler, Johnny recorded this lively duet with June Carter in 1967. One of their most famous songs performed together, it scored them a Grammy for Best Country and Western Duet Performance. A fun song featuring conversational call-and-response vocal lines between a husband and wife, ‘Jackson’ charted all the way to number two after its release. The song was such an integral part of Johnny and June’s performances together, when their biopic was filmed starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, the actors’ cover of this song was a cornerstone of the movie.
Related: This track appears on our list of top oldie country songs (among plenty of other fine tunes).
4. I Walk The Line
In the early ’50s, Johnny Cash was an up-and-coming artist in the country music industry. His first recordings at the famed Sun Records studio earned him a spot on Elvis Presley’s tour. While on the road and away from his first wife Vivian, he wrote ‘I Walk the Line’ as both a reminder to her and himself that he’d stay faithful no matter what. The vocally demanding track (Cash executed a few different key changes in the original version) was his first hit that really put him on the map. Not only did it take the top spot on the country charts in the States, it also placed in the top 20 on the pop charts. The breakout hit would go on to open new doors for him in the industry and spark a tour of his own.
Related: See more songs with walking in the lyrics.
3. Folsom Prison Blues
Though Cash’s original recording of his rocking tune ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ first appeared in 1956, it would provide the foundation for a career resurgence in 1968 when he performed it at Folsom Prison for his legendary live album. The electric live edition of the song sparked renewed nationwide interest in Cash, who seized on the moment and embarked on a string of shows performing at prisons like San Quentin. The controversy behind the popular song helped it reach number one on the charts for several weeks.
Related: This classic tune appears on our jail songs list (of course 🙂
2. Ring of Fire
During a performance at The Grand Ole Opry, Johnny Cash first laid eyes on fellow singer-songwriter June Carter. For Cash, it was love at first sight. But his drug addictions and volatile first marriage made him a tough man for June to love at times. During a particularly low point early on in their relationship, June sat down and wrote ‘Ring of Fire,’ which is exactly what she felt like she was in at the time regarding their romance. When Cash dueted with Carter, he turned her folksy original into an upbeat, twangy country classic. This popular Cash single comes in at number two.
Related: Check out more songs with ‘ring’ in the title.
Just one year before Johnny Cash passed away, he released a stirring cover of rock band Nine Inch Nails’ song ‘Hurt.’ Featuring Cash’s worn-down, leathery voice, a lone piano note, and slowly-building instrumentation, the country icon wanted to turn his heartache over losing his wife June Carter, and his failing health, into an artistic statement. Despite this being one of the few releases Cash didn’t write, it became an enduring sendoff for the singer-songwriter. Fans across rock and country genres appreciated his emotional rendition, and it is still widely streamed today, which is why it takes the top spot.
Related: This track also tops our list of hurt feelings songs.