In Memoriam pays tribute to those who have left this world, and the songs they left us to remember them by.
Eleven years ago today, Johnny Cash breathed his last. Two weeks before, Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River” beat Cash’s “Hurt” for Best Male Video at the MTV Video Music Awards. Timberlake began his acceptance speech by saying, “This is a travesty. I demand a recount.” He went on to say, “My grandfather raised me on Johnny Cash… and I think he deserves this more than any of us in here tonight.” In a career that’s had far more right moves than wrong ones, this may have been Timberlake’s wisest move – not only did he cede the spotlight to a true legend, he acknowledged that Cash’s already-legendary cover of the Nine Inch Nails song was and would ever after be the true winner.
Tremendous as Cash’s interpretive abilities were, it shouldn’t be forgotten that he was no slouch with the pen himself. Today, we pull our focus down to five covers of songs that Cash himself wrote – well, four and a half, but we’ll get to that in just a moment. Point being, there was more than singing to the Man in Black, and here’s a sample of what that includes.
Slim Harpo – Folsom Prison Blues (Johnny Cash cover)
Little-known fact: “Folsom Prison Blues” has very deep roots in “Crescent City Blues” by Gordon Jenkins, sharing melody and some lyrics. “At the time, I really had no idea I would be a professional recording artist,” Cash explained later. “I wasn’t trying to rip anybody off.” Still, he ended up paying Jenkins 75 grand and keeping the written-by credit to himself. In all fairness, the most memorable line of the song was all Cash’s. Here’s a cover by Slim Harpo, best known for the appearance of his “Shake Your Hips” on Exile on Main Street.
Those Poor Bastards – I Walk the Line (Johnny Cash cover)
“I Walk the Line” is a song about fidelity that wound up as Cash’s first number one record and spawned a wide variety of covers, ranging from Waylon Jennings and George Jones to Dean Martin and (oh dear) Leonard Nimoy. Those Poor Bastards (a band, not that aforementioned bunch) add a few coats of doom to the proceedings, giving the impression that there’s a hellhound walking the line just behind that singer.
NRBQ – Get Rhythm (Johnny Cash cover)
“[W]ith a title like ‘Get Rhythm,’ I gotta think there’s all kinds of ways to play rhythm and it doesn’t have to be the Tennessee Two version.” So sayeth Terry Adams, founding member of NRBQ, on his pleasantly reworked version of the original B-side to “I Walk The Line.” He goes on to sayeth that Carl Perkins told him that after Cash heard this version, he started playing it that way, too. Everybody hopes it’s true.
Crosseyed – Let the Train Blow the Whistle (Johnny Cash cover)
The American Recordings of Cash’s last decade saw his interpretive skills taking center stage, but let the record show (no pun intended but totally intended) that Cash was still composing quality songs of his own – the four albums released before he died each featured three or four Cash originals. “Let the Train Blow the Whistle” was one of them, and it finds a nice home in the hands of Crosseyed, as featured on the decent tribute album Cash From Chaos.
Hans Theessink – The Man Comes Around (Johnny Cash cover)
“The Man Comes Around” was inspired by a dream that Cash had, and it conveys the sense of a man rising from his deathbed to unleash one last epic on the world before his final collapse. This cover comes from Hans Theessink, a Delta bluesman who calls Vienna home. His cover is more conversational than apocalyptic, but the song still holds the listener in its gritty, sweaty palm.
This Vanity Fair piece about Johnny Cash and Rick Rubin came out almost ten years ago and feels like it was written yesterday.