Ring of Fire: Song by Song

Read more about each song featured in The Rep’s production of Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash, including label and release dates, sample lyrics and background information.

“Country Boy”
Songwriter: John R. Cash
Label and release date: Sun, 1957
Sample lyric: “Country boy/Ain’t got no wills/Country boy/You don’t owe no bills”
Note: “Country Boy,” an exceptionally short tune running only 1:49 on record, was on Cash’s debut, Johnny Cash With His Hot and Blue Guitar. This was the first full album put out by Memphis’ Sun records. Also, Cash had the songwriting credit listed under his birth name.

“Flesh and Blood”
Songwriter: Johnny Cash
Label and release date: Columbia, 1970
Sample lyric: “Mother Nature’s quite a lady/But you’re the one I need/Flesh and blood need flesh and blood/And you’re the one I need”

“While I’ve Got It On My Mind”
Songwriter: Johnny Cash
Label and release date: Columbia, 1974
Sample lyric: “Now boys don’t you be rambling free/And leaving your girls to cry/Cause the nights are cold and there ain’t no gold/That’ll ever satisfy”

“Five Feet High and Rising”
Songwriter: John R. Cash
Label and release date: Sun, 1959
Note: The song is based on a real event, the 1937 flood that forced the evacuation of the Dyess Colony where the Cash family lived and worked.

“In the Sweet By and By”
Songwriters: S. Fillmore Bennett and Joseph P. Webster
Label and release date: Columbia, 1975
Note: Cash’s first recording of the 1868 Christian hymn was for the gospel album, Sings Precious Memories. Cash had tried and failed to convince Sam Phillips, head of the Memphis Sun label, to let him record a gospel music. When Cash moved to Columbia (with a number of hits under his belt), his wish was granted. Sings Precious Memories was his fifth gospel album for Columbia.

“Daddy Sang Bass”
Songwriter: Carl Perkins
Label and release date: Columbia, 1968
Note: Rockabilly star Perkins wrote this song about a family united through gospel music for Cash, his friend and tour mate. Perkins credited Cash for renewing his faith and recovery from alcohol addiction.

“I Still Miss Someone”
Songwriters: Johnny Cash and brother Roy Cash
Label and release date: Columbia, 1958
Sample lyric: “I wonder if she’s sorry/For leavin’ what we’d begun/There’s someone for me somewhere/And I still miss somewhere”

“Tennessee Flat Top Box”
Songwriter: Johnny Cash
Label and release date: Columbia, 1961
Note: In 1987 Johnny’s daughter Roseanne Cash had a chart-topping hit with her cover of “Tennessee Flat Box.” Roseanne, given the song by her then husband Rodney Crowell, wasn’t aware at the time that it was written by her father.

“Straight A’s in Love”
Songwriter: John R. Cash
Label and release date: Sun, 1959
Sample lyric: “Oh, my grades are low on my card, I know/But they oughta give me one above/If they’d give me a mark for learnin’ in the dark/I’d have straight A’s in love”

“Big River”
Songwriter: John R. Cash
Label and release date: Sun, 1958
Note: “Big River” was the last song on Cash’s second album, Johnny Cash Sings the Songs That Made Him Famous. The Tennessee Two’s insistent, thumping beat coupled with Cash’s vocals — particularly powerful with more than a hint of danger — make “Big River” a standout song.

“Tear Stained Letter”
Songwriter: Johnny Cash
Label and release date: Columbia, 1972
Note: Cash recorded this brooding love song twice — first for the Columbia album, A Thing Called Love and then for American IV: The Man Comes Around, the final album that would be released while Cash was alive.

“Get Rhythm”
Songwriter: John R. Cash
Label and release date: Sun, 1956
Note: The B-side to “I Walk the Line” is an uptempo piece of optimism, the rhythm produced by a “shoeshine boy” to ward off the blues. Cash demonstrates that his material can come from almost any part of life.

“Egg Suckin’ Dog”
Songwriter: Jack H. Clement
Label and release date: Columbia, 1966
Note: One of Cash’s great strengths was his enthusiasm in tackling novelty songs like this one and “A Boy Named Sue.” This tune, which debuted on Everybody Loves a Nut, was written by Clement, who started out as a producer and engineer at Sun Records. Clement wrote a number of hits for Cash including “Guess Things Happen That Way.”

“Oh Come, Angel Band”
Songwriter: Johnny Cash
Label and release date: Cachet/Columbia, 1979
Sample lyric: “My triumph is begun/Oh come, angel band/Come around me and stand/Oh, bear me away on your snow white wings”

“Flushed from the Bathroom of My Heart”
Songwriter: Jack H. Clement
Label and release date: Columbia, 1968
Note: One of a couple of novelty songs on the live At Folsom Prison album. At Folsom Prison, a critical and commercial success, marked a turning point in Cash’s career. Cash said “that’s where things got started for me again.”

“If I Were a Carpenter”
Songwriter: Tim Hardin
Label and release date: Columbia, 1970
Note: A duet between Johnny and June Carter that was awarded a Grammy in 1971 for Best Country Performance by Duo or Group with Vocal.

“Ring of Fire”
Songwriters: June Carter Cash and Merle Kilgore
Label and release date: Columbia, 1963
Note: The biggest hit of Cash’s career was first performed by June’s sister, Anita Carter, and was titled “(Love’s) Ring of Fire.” Cash told Anita that he would give her version time to catch on and become popular but, if it didn’t, then he would record it the way he wanted. Of course, Cash did just that with the flourish of mariachi horns (which he later claimed came to him in a dream) being the most distinctive element of any Cash song and arguably any in the history of country music. Cash’s “Ring of Fire” invariably lands on lists of greatest songs — in 2003 CMT put it at number 4 in its 100 Greatest Songs in Country Music.

“I’ve Been Everywhere”
Songwriter: Geoff Mack
Label and release date: American, 1996
Note: This Cash cover of  a signature song for country star Hank Snow appeared on the Unchained album. It was the second album where Cash teamed with producer Rick Rubin, who had produced the Beasties Boys and Red Hot Chili Peppers among many others.

“Cry, Cry, Cry”
Songwriter: John R. Cash
Label and release date: Sun, 1955
Note: The song that Cash supposedly wrote overnight to impress Sam Phillips at Sun after “Hey Porter” did not sell. It did the trick and a number of hits for Cash at Sun followed.

“Sunday Morning Coming Down”
Songwriter: Kris Kristofferson
Label and release date: Columbia, 1970
Note: Ray Stevens released and was able to chart his version of this Kristofferson song one year before Cash. But Cash, backed by a sweeping arrangement of lush strings, made the song his, winning Country Music Association’s “Song of the Year” award in 1970.

“Going to Memphis”
Songwriters: Johnny Cash, Hollie Dew and Alan Lomax
Label and release date: Columbia, 1960
Sample lyric: “Like a bitter weed, I’m a bad seed/But when that levee’s through I am too/Let the honky tonk roll on/Come mornin’ I’ll be gone”

“Delia’s Gone”
Songwriters: Karl Silbersdorf and Dick Toops
Label and release date: Columbia, 1962
Note: Cash recorded this dark ballad of murder for The Sound of Johnny Cash and then for his 1994 comeback American Recordings. This and “Cocaine Blues” would be contenders for the darkest material Cash ever put to record. The song is based on the real life murder of Delia Green in 1900 and several artists have written or sung about the crime.

“Orleans Parish Prison”
Songwriter: Dick Feller
Label and release date: Columbia, 1973
Sample lyric: “Well, have you missed my brother man/He took a little money with a gun in his hand/Know the kids are hungry and the wife ain’t well/And the daddy’s locked up in a prison cell”

“Folsom Prison Blues”
Songwriter: John R. Cash
Label and release date:  Sun, 1956
Note: One has to think that if Cash had done nothing else but leave this song to the world, then he would still have a noted reputation. But “Folsom Prison Blues,” one of his early songs for Sun and then a key part of his At Folsom Prison live, is where Cash stands out less as a hit maker and more as a songwriter. The details here of the man stuck in prison while the world moves around him are perfect, from the chilling “I shot a man in Reno/Just to watch him die” to the less quoted “I know I had it comin’/I know I can’t be free.”

“Man in Black”
Songwriter: Johnny Cash
Label and release date: Columbia, 1971
Note: Part of Cash’s greatness comes from the fact that he recorded lots of novelty songs as well as protest numbers like this one. “Man in Black” is hardly the most artful song in Cash’s catalog but few if any country stars then or now were so vocal about social concerns. In many ways, these protest songs put Cash firmly in the folk camp and made him a significant figure transcending genre boundaries.

“All Over Again”
Songwriter: Johnny Cash
Label and release date: Columbia, 1958
Sample lyric: “I want to fall in love again beginning from the start/All over again/Show me how you stole away my heart/All over again”

“Boy Named Sue”
Songwriter: Shel Silverstein
Label and release date: Columbia, 1969
Note: The big hit off of At San Quentin, a song that Cash had only recently received and needed a cheat sheet to perform for the prisoners in San Quentin.

“Jackson”
Songwriters: Jerry Leiber and Billy Edd Wheeler
Label and release date: Columbia, 1967
Note: This duet with June Carter Cash — though not written by Johnny or June — captures the spirit and spark of the pair. It quickly became their signature duet. June, who had studied acting under noted acting guru Lee Strasberg, puts on a show in this tune.

“I Walk the Line”
Songwriter: John R. Cash,
Label and release date: Sun, 1956
Note: Cash’s first big hit and work that established the singer-songwriter’s unrivaled place in popular music. In 2004 Rolling Stone put it at number 30 in  their 500 Greatest Songs of All Time
“It was different than anything else you had ever heard,” Bob Dylan told Rolling Stone about the song. “A voice from the middle of the Earth.”

“The Far Side Banks of Jordan”
Songwriter: Terry Stephen Smith
Label and release date: Columbia, 1976
Sample lyric: “Through this life we’ve labored hard to earn our meager fare/It’s brought us trembling hands and failing eyes/So I’ll just rest here on this shore and turn my eyes away/Until you come, then we’ll see paradise”

“Why Me, Lord”
Songwriter: Kris Kristofferson
Label and release date: American, 1994
Note: This song about redemption was a rare country hit for Kristofferson in 1973. Cash recorded it for American Recordings, his first album with Rick Rubin as producer.

“Hey Porter”
Songwriter: John R. Cash
Label and release date: Sun, 1955
Note: It wasn’t the hit that Sam Phillips at Sun was hoping for and it wasn’t even on Cash’s debut. But it was the one of the first songs young Cash would write, which he did on his way back from being stationed in Germany. “Hey Porter” captures the great excitement of Cash returning home to Arkansas.

This entry was posted in Dramaturgy, Productions and tagged , , by Werner Trieschmann. Bookmark the permalink.
Werner Trieschmann

About Werner Trieschmann

Werner Trieschmann is the Dramaturg for Arkansas Repertory Theatre. Werner has had plays produced across the United States and, most recently, in England, Italy and Romania. His work has been staged at Moving Arts in Los Angeles, Ensemble Studio Theatre in New York, The New Theatre in Boston and Red Octopus Productions in Little Rock. His comedy "You Have to Serve Somebody" (Dramatic Publishing) was developed at the Mount Sequoyah New Play Retreat in Fayetteville. He won first prize in the Contemporary Arts Center of New Orleans New Play Competition and was the first playwright to receive the Porter Prize, recognizing outstanding achievement by an Arkansas writer. He holds an MFA in playwriting from Boston University.

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