Johnny Cash has been regarded as one of the greatest musicians in the world since the 1960s. Over his 40-year career, Cash released nearly 100 albums of mostly country, bluegrass, and gospel songs.
In the 1980s, the kind of music Johnny Cash was making wasn't cool and as a result, Johnny Cash wasn't cool. So, he had sort of a lull in his career there for a while. He was getting older and country music was moving in a different direction. In the early 1990s, popular record producer Rick Rubin, who was mostly known for working with rap and metal groups, signed Cash as the first artist to his new American Recordings record label.
Cash recorded his final six albums with Rubin, two of which were released posthumously as Cash died in 2003. The American series of albums invigorated Cash's career and introduced him to a new generation of fans. Part of the appeal of the new records was that they were not typically what Cash had been known for. They were heavier in some aspects and featured a wider array of musical genres.
Recording cover songs was nothing new to Cash, as he had covered a lot earlier in his career. As he got older and worked closely with Rubin, the two heavily relied on cover songs and used Cash's vocals to give the songs new meaning. As he aged, Cash's voice changed and got weaker and sounded more mortal. He was an old man who was going to die one day and that comes across when he sings about mortality, loving his family, and finding God.
The following are ten of my favorite cover songs from Cash's six American albums, loosely ranked. I'll list the song, who performed it originally, what album it was from, and give some thoughts about it. Since something like this is very subjective, let me know how you feel about it. There are a lot of good ones I left out.
Hurt ... American IV: The Man Comes Around ... Nine Inch Nails ... The song that brought Johnny Cash back into the mainstream shortly before his death. Released in 2003, the song is almost haunting in how Cash sings it. It's basically about demons ruining your life and finally realizing it once it's too late. The music video features a look back at Cash's life, with older footage of "the man in black" used as a sharp juxtaposition of the man seemingly too weak to move. Cash's wife was filmed in the video with him but died before it aired, giving the video an extra air of creepiness. In subsequent performances, Trent Reznor has adopted the Cash minimalistic approach to "Hurt."
I Hung My Head ... American IV: The Man Comes Around ... Sting ... This is where the brilliance of Cash's vocals comes into play. I don't like Sting's version, but Cash gives it the right touch of sorrow and angst to make it special. "I Hung My Head" is about killing another man for no reason. It's a heartless song and Sting makes it too pop-sounding. Cash sings with pain and hurt in his voice.
Personal Jesus ... American IV: The Man Comes Around ... Depeche Mode ... While this song isn't necessarily about the actual Jesus, but rather somebody in your life who represents that person to you, religious songs were a staple of Cash's catalogue. Easily the biggest hit of Depeche Mode's career, Cash strips it down and makes it his own. Marilyn Manson covers it too, which is fun to listen to if that's your thing.
One ... American III: Solitary Man ... U2 ... Powerful enough when Bono sings it, it gets taken to a new stratosphere when Cash gets ahold of it. With lyrics like "We're one, but we're not the same" and "You asked me to enter, but then you made me crawl" and "I can't be holding on to what you've got, when all you've got is hurt" the issues with relationships and interactions with people makes this one of the most thought-provoking songs of all time.
Rusty Cage ... Unchained ... Soundgarden ... One of my all-time favorite vocalists is Chris Cornell. With that said, though, "Rusty Cage" is one of my least-favorite Soundgarden songs. The problem with Soundgarden's version is that the music is too fast for the lyrics that work better slow. Cash solves that problem by starting out with the acoustic guitar in the beginning, then adding the right touch of rock as the song kicks it up a notch.
Won't Back Down ... American III: Solitary Man ... Tom Petty & The Heartbeakers ... On the second album in the American series, Unchained, the backing band was actually Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. On that album, he covered their song "Southern Accents." One album later, in 2000, Cash covered one of their more anthem-like tracks, "Won't Back Down." Tom Petty gave the song his personal blessing, as he performs backing vocals.
God's Gonna Cut You Down ... American V: A Hundred Highways ... Odetta ... One of those songs that's been around for forever and nobody really knows who wrote it. Elvis Presley recorded a version of it back in the day. This was the first album of new material released after Cash's death. It's a song about getting your life on the right track, because God's gonna cut you down at some point. Star-studded video featuring a multitude of actors, musicians, and celebrities paying tribute to Cash.
Redemption Day ... American VI: Ain't No Grave ... Sheryl Crow ... From the second and final posthumous album, released in 2009, this Sheryl Crow song from 1996 is one of the few that Cash sounds vibrant and full of life on. The final album was noteworthy for Cash sounding especially frail, but he seems to come alive here.
Ain't No Grave ... American VI: Ain't No Grave ... Bozie Sturdivant ... Perhaps that line about coming alive would be more appropriate here. Creepy-sounding song released six years after his death about how there "ain't no grave can hold my body down." So far, the final single released from what was seemingly a never-ending career. However, if we listen to the lyrics, it would imply that he can't be stopped. I believe him.
Rowboat ... Unchained ... Beck ... For alt-rock god Beck, this song was seen at the time as a stylistic divergence from what his fans were used to. He wrote a country song about a girl who doesn't love him anymore and sang it with a country twang. All Johnny Cash had to do to cover it was to be Johnny Cash and it worked. For the most part, Cash covered country artists and rock groups who were fairly well known. At this point, Beck was still an up-and-coming musician. While he had the ability to make it on his own, being associated with Cash so early in his career definitely helped bring new eyes to this perpetual "Loser."
And there we go. There's a lot of stuff that didn't make the cut. Covers of The Beatles, Bruce Springsteen, Kris Kristofferson, The Eagles, and more. Who do you like? Who's on your list? If you have thoughts on it, let me know.