The Stories Behind 10 Famous Johnny Cash Songs

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Johnny Cash once wrote, “I love songs about horses, railroads, land, judgment day, family, hard times, whiskey, courtship, marriage, adultery, separation, murder, war, prison, rambling, damnation, home, salvation, death, pride, humor, piety, rebellion, patriotism, larceny, determination, tragedy, rowdiness, heartbreak and love. And Mother And God."

That sums up Cash's discography pretty well. He covers at least 20 of those themes in the 10 songs below. Here are the backstories behind some of the Man in Black's most famous songs—and maybe a little insight into why he loved those topics so much.

1. "Man in Black"

In the song, Cash explains that he always wears black to performances and public appearances because of social injustices, “just so we’re reminded of the ones who are held back.” It’s a great story, but it’s not 100 percent true. In 2002, he told Larry King that black was his signature color simply because he felt most comfortable in it, although he preferred light blue in summer. “You walk into my clothes closet. It’s dark in there,” he said.

Rolling Stone wrote that the inky wardrobe was also helpful when it came to hiding dirt and dust in the early touring days.

2. "Chicken in Black"

Cash didn’t always wear black. In the video above, he’s dressed in bright yellow, accessorized with a powder blue cape.

Sound a little off-brand? It was. In the early ‘80s, Cash felt that Columbia, his record label, was ignoring him and failing to promote his music properly. He decided to record a song so awful that it would force Columbia to cut his contract early. The plan worked, but it came at a price. “He was kind of mocking and dismantling his own legacy,” daughter Rosanne later said. Here’s a sampling of the lyrics, in case the video is too painful to watch: “I put your brain in a chicken last Monday, he’s singing your songs and making lots of money, and I’ve got him signed to a 10-year recording contract.”

3. "I Walk the Line"

Written in just 20 minutes, Cash’s (arguably) greatest hit was intended as a reminder to himself to stay faithful to his first wife, Vivian, while he was on the road opening for Elvis in the mid-1950s. "It was kind of a prodding to myself to 'Play it straight, Johnny,'" he once said. According to other interviews, that wasn’t the song’s only meaning: He also meant it as an oath to God. Although Sam Phillips from Sun Records said that he wasn’t interested in gospel songs, Johnny was able to sneak “I Walk the Line” past him with the story about being true to his wife.

4. "A Boy Named Sue"

In 1969, Johnny and June threw a party at their house in Hendersonville. As you might imagine, it was a veritable who’s-who of music: Bob Dylan, Graham Nash, Joni Mitchell, Kris Kristofferson, and Shel Silverstein. Everyone debuted a new song at the party—Dylan sang “Lay Lady Lay,” Nash did “Marrakkesh Express,” Kristofferson played “Me and Bobby McGee,” and Mitchell sang “Both Sides Now.” Silverstein, who was a songwriter in addition to an author of children’s books, debuted “A Boy Named Sue.”

When the party was over, June encouraged Johnny to take the lyrics to “Sue” on the plane the next day. They were headed to California to record the famous live At San Quentin album. Johnny wasn’t sure he could learn the lyrics fast enough, but he did—and the inmates went crazy for it. They weren’t the only ones: "A Boy Named Sue" quickly shot to the top of the charts. And not just the country charts—it held the #2 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 for three weeks.

The song was originally inspired by a male friend of Silverstein’s with a somewhat feminine name—Jean Shepherd, the author of A Christmas Story.

5. "Ring of Fire"

The story behind this one depends on who you believe. The Carter-Cash family has always maintained that June and guitar player Merle Kilgore co-wrote the song about June falling in love with Johnny despite being worried about his drug and alcohol problem.

But according to Johnny’s first wife, Vivian, June had nothing to do with “Ring of Fire.” “The truth is, Johnny wrote that song, while pilled up and drunk, about a certain private female body part,” Vivian wrote in her autobiography. She claims he gave June credit for writing the song because he thought she needed the money.

Either way, June’s sister Anita originally recorded the song. After Johnny had a dream that he was singing it with mariachi horns, he recorded it that way. (Several years later, a hemorrhoid ointment tried to turn it into their jingle.)

6. "The Man Comes Around"

“Ring of Fire” isn’t the only time Johnny had a dream that inspired a song. In his later years, Cash had a dream that he walked into Buckingham Palace and encountered Queen Elizabeth just sitting on the floor. When she saw him, the Queen said, “Johnny Cash, you’re like a thorn tree in a whirlwind!” Two or three years later, Cash remembered the dream, decided that the reference must be a biblical one, and wrote what he called “my song of the apocalypse”—“The Man Comes Around.”

7. "Hey Porter"

This one is another early song inspired by Vivian. From the summer of 1951 through the summer of 1954, Cash was deployed in Germany with the Air Force. At the end of three years, he turned down the option to re-enlist, feeling homesick for his girl and his home. On the journey back from Germany, he penned “Hey Porter” about the excitement and relief he felt to finally be coming home.

8. "Folsom Prison Blues"

After seeing Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison, Cash was inspired to write a song about it. Too bad that song already existed as “Crescent City Blues,” written by Gordon Jenkins.

Jenkins sued for copyright infringement in 1969 and received $75,000. Cash later admitted that he heard the song when he was in the Air Force, but borrowing the tune and some of the lyrics was subconscious; he never meant to rip Jenkins off. Oh, but the famous “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die” line—that was all Johnny.

9. "Cry! Cry! Cry!"

After Cash returned home from the Air Force and signed with Sun Records, he gave Sam Phillips “Hey Porter.” Phillips asked for a ballad for the B-side, so Cash went home and quickly wrote “Cry! Cry! Cry!” literally overnight. It became his first big hit—not bad for an afterthought.

10. "Get Rhythm"

Though “Get Rhythm” eventually became the B-side for “I Walk the Line,” Cash originally wrote it for Elvis. It might have been recorded by Presley, but when he went to RCA, Sam Phillips refused to let him take “Get Rhythm” with him.

This article originally ran in 2014.

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7 Fascinating Facts About Janelle Monáe

Janelle Monáe performs at the State Theatre in Minneapolis in 2018.
Janelle Monáe performs at the State Theatre in Minneapolis in 2018.

In music, there are artists, original artists, and then there’s Janelle Monáe. Since breaking out a decade ago with her first album, 2010's The ArchAndroid, Monáe—who was born on December 1, 1985—has seemed unstoppable, pushing the envelope with her astonishing blend of different musical styles, daring fashion sense, and serious acting chops. Bottom line: If Janelle Monáe has a new project, it’s going to be worth checking out. Here are some fascinating facts about the talent behind The Electric Lady.

1. Responding to a fan got Janelle Monáe fired from her job at Office Depot.

Before hitting it big, Monáe paid the bills by working at Office Depot while she was attending the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York. She received an email from a fan and sent a response—on a company computer. She was let go, but the experience inspired her to write the song “Lettin’ Go.”

2. Janelle Monáe is still annoyed about losing the lead in a high school production of The Wiz.

Monaé's talent was clear at a young age. Growing up in Kansas City, Kansas, she won three consecutive Juneteenth talents shows by covering songs from The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill each year. However, while Monáe headlined many of her high school's musicals, she lost one major part—Dorothy in The Wiz—because family duty called. Monaé's mom needed to be picked up from work, which meant that the aspiring actress had to leave her audition early. As a result, a fellow classmate got the part; according to Rolling Stone, it's something that still bothers Monáe to this day.

3. Janelle Monáe’s acting career had an animated start.

Janelle Monáe stars in Antebellum (2020).Lionsgate

As if Monáe's music career wasn't impressive enough, she's also shown some serious acting talent in the last several years. Monáe has been a powerful presence in films like Moonlight and Hidden Figures, along with her starring role in the second season of Homecoming. However, her first film appearance was a voice acting role. In the animated sequel Rio 2, Monáe played the aptly named Dr. Monáe, a veterinarian. Her song "What Is Love" was also featured on the film's soundtrack.

4. Janelle Monáe had a close friendship with Prince.

There are countless musicians and artists who can claim the late Prince as an inspiration. Few of them can actually call him a friend. The Purple Rain mastermind championed Monáe and helped guide her creative process. According to Rolling Stone, he was the first person to receive a copy of Monáe's debut studio album, The ArchAndroid, which was delivered with flowers and a handwritten tracklist.

5. Janelle Monáe’s albums have had a narrative thread.

Monáe’s love for science-fiction is quite apparent, based on her discography and expressed fondness for films like Fritz Lang’s groundbreaking silent film Metropolis, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her debut EP, Metropolis: The Chase Suite, and first two studio albums, The ArchAndroid and The Electric Lady, each centered around an alter-ego: Cindi Mayweather. This titular "archandroid" was meant to serve as a bridge between humans and robots. During The Electric Lady tour, fans were given pamphlets labeled "The Ten Droid Commandments." The Afrofuturism and sci-fi elements of Monáe's earlier music aren't emphasized as much on her most recent album, Dirty Computer, but the excellent quality is.

6. Janelle Monáe has been honored by Harvard.

Monáe has racked up numerous awards, including an MTV Video Music Award, a Satellite Award, a Screen Actors Guild Award, two Soul Train Music Awards, and even more nominations. She also has some serious Ivy League endorsements. In 2014, after headlining Harvard’s annual Yardfest event, Monáe was the first recipient of the award for Achievement in Arts and Media by the Harvard College Women’s Center. That same year, the Harvard Black Men’s Forum named Monáe Woman of the Year.

7. Janelle Monáe pays tribute to her parents through her outfits.

Janelle Monáe performing at the 2016 Boston Calling Music Festival.digboston via Flickr // CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

When it comes to her fashion sense, Monáe is known for her daring styles. One of her most iconic looks is a black and white tuxedo. Discussing this on Fresh Air, Monáe said she did this to honor her parents, who had to wear uniforms throughout their work lives. Her mother even worked a catering job with a tuxedo uniform dress code. "So that was one reason why I was constantly wearing the black-and-white tuxedo," she said. "And then I wanted to rebel against the gender norms and what it meant to dress like a woman or what it meant to dress like a man."