Album Notes: Johnny Cash's "Ring Of Fire: The Best of Johnny Cash"

Wednesday, January 11: 4 p.m.
Posted by Rock Hall

Despite the subtitle of Johnny Cash's 1963 compilation album Ring of Fire: The Best of Johnny Cash, the 12 tracks more accurately represent a nicely curated assemblage of singles and recordings from the Man in Black's late Fifties to the early Sixties catalog. As an undisputed legend of American song, a titanic figure on par with Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly and Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash arguably sang more types of songs, including folk, country, blues and gospel, than any of his peers or predecessors – and this album illustrates that versatility.

Although present at the genesis of rock and roll as one of the earliest signings to Sam Phillips' Sun Records in 1955, Cash recorded for nearly three decades with Columbia Records, a fruitful period that produced an estimated 1,400 songs. Cash's 16th album, Ring of Fire did, in fact, feature some of his best material, and on the week of January 11, 1964, it became the Number One album on Billboard's new Country Album chart.

The title track, "Ring Of Fire," written by June Carter and Merle Kilgore, is indicative of the idiosyncratic genius that's a hallmark of Cash's songwriting, with its spartan rockabilly rhythm and mariachi horns mixed to great effect beneath Cash's inimitable timbre. Cash the loner balladeer shines on "I'd Still Be There" (I overlooked a lot of things I knew I should have done / I did things that I'm sorry for I lived to have my fun  / But now the world that once was bright is empty and bare / And if you wouldn't be ashamed of me I'd still be there) and "What Do I Care" (What do I care just as long as you were mine a little while / When the road was long and weary you gave me a few good mile / What do I care if I miss a goal because I make a slip / I'll still be satisfied because I tasted your sweet lips).

Originally released as the b-side to "Don't Take Your Guns To Town" – Cash's first Number One country hit – in 1958, Cash's brooding baritone made "I Still Miss Someone" a beautiful country lament. While "Forty Shades Of Green" reflected Cash's sentimental feelings toward Ireland and "a girl in Tipperary town," Western narratives were the foundation of "The Rebel - Johnny Yuma" (the soundtrack to TV show The Rebel, which starred Nick Adams as Johnny Yuma from 1959 to 1961) and "Bonanza!" (for which Cash helped rewrite the lyrics to the popular show's theme song). "The Big Battle" was Cash's version of a war protest song (For every shot fired had an echo and every man killed wanted life / There lies your friend Jim McKenney can you take the news to his wife); and a topic he'd revisit in the stirring "Remember The Alamo," a chilling march whose lyrics chronicled the brutality of the 13-day Santa Anna siege of the Alamo. Much more upbeat was "Tennessee Flat-Top Box," fueled with a dose of rockabilly and colorful storyline about a mysterious "little dark-haired boy" who woos and wows with the track's namesake instrument.

Cash turned to Gospel for "Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord)" and "(There'll Be) Peace In The Valley (For Me)." The latter standard penned by Thomas A. Dorsey (arguably most noted for his composition, "Take My Hand Precious Lord," a favorite of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that became a Civil Rights anthem when sung by Mahalia Jackson) was a moving bookend – complete with the Carter Family chorus – to an album that preceded nearly four more decades of Cash recordings.


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