Despite growing up in rural Vermont, I have never been fond of modern country music. However, while my grudge against the current standards of country music may never lessen, classic country and western is a different story.
While Johnny Cash falls somewhere between country, rock and western, it is already evident that his influence and impact on the music industry will never be forgotten. Whether you have been a longtime Cash listener, or the name is brand-new, I invite you to experience my personal favorites of Cash’s over 1500 songs.
It’s not a proper Johnny Cash playlist if I don’t include at least one of his iconic murder ballads. One of my favorite aspects of Cash’s songs has always been their narrative capability. “Cocaine Blues,” in particular, illustrates a glimpse into the life of outlaw Willy Lee, a man who kills his unfaithful spouse after taking a shot of cocaine and soon finds himself on the run. I love the polluted western vibes this song radiates alongside Cash’s ability to convey such a provocative yet believable anecdote that always has me coming back for more.
Although Johnny Cash did not originally write this song, I am here to argue that his version is the best. From the addictive blend of fiddle and guitar to Cash’s calm yet reflective tone, this song often makes me feel like a nameless traveler, merely passing through each stage of life. I have always adored the spiritual aspect of this song and how it details the soul’s journey from life to the beyond and how the loved ones we’ve lost will always wait for us.
I believe that everybody can relate to this song at one point in their lives. I discovered this song in the midst of 2020 and remember feeling such a connection to the lyrics of restlessness and always wanting to leave. Perhaps my imagination is more robust than most, but something about this tune always makes me daydream of every possibility my life holds, albeit good or bad.
Folsom Prison Blues
Okay, I lied; I could not help but include a second murder ballad. Yet, before you roll your eyes, I think it’s essential to bring up the legacy and impact of ‘Folsom Prison Blues.’ Beginning in 1957, Cash started his two-decade long stint of performing concerts within prisons, most notably at Folsom Prison in Folsom, California. Soon after, Cash went on to sponsor prison reform efforts, and publicized taboo ideologies of thought such as everyman deserving a second chance at life. While it’s important to admire Cash’s lasting legacy on music, I believe it is equally important to see how he used his stage for good.
Despite being originally written by Nine Inch Nails, I would argue that “Hurt” is one of Cash’s most iconic releases. Being one of his final pieces before his death in 2003, this song oozes with age and exhaustion, crafting an image of a man who wants nothing more than rest, but cannot yet achieve that luxury. Although this song may have debuted at the end of Cash’s career, I fully believe it played a major role in immortalizing Cash’s life and legacy.