The essential Johnny Cash playlist
CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

The essential Johnny Cash playlist

An artist who managed to fully cross over from country star to full-blown legend, there's no overestimating the influence that Johnny Cash had on American music. The iconic "Man In Black," whose booming baritone and relentless championing of the working class shaped country music in some truly fundamental ways, may have died in 2003, but his legend lives on forever. 

Looking for a guide to where to start in Cash's massive catalog? These 20 songs are essential additions to any Man In Black playlist. 

 
1 of 20

"I Walk The Line"

"I Walk The Line"
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

With its unmistakable melody and his legendary baritone, “I Walk The Line” has evolved into one of Johnny Cash’s most recognizable songs. It later became the title of the Oscar-winning 2005 biopic made about Cash’s life, which starred Joaquin Phoenix as the Man in Black. 

 
2 of 20

"Man In Black"

"Man In Black"
GAB Archive/Redferns

Both a pointed protest and manifesto for Cash’s worldview, “Man In Black” is the artist’s most recognizable nickname. As its lyrics bear out, both the song and Cash’s iconic somber wardrobe were a protest against the exploitation of poor Americans and the prison industrial complex, among other issues. 

 
3 of 20

"Jackson"

"Jackson"
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A riveting performance from both Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, “Jackson” is totally relatable for anyone who’s ever been totally annoyed by their spouse. Released in 1967, the song earned the duo a Grammy Award for Best Country-Western Performance the following year. 

 
4 of 20

"Hurt"

"Hurt"
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Originally a Nine Inch Nails song written by Trent Reznor, Cash delivered his painfully beautiful rendition of “Hurt” on his album “American IV: The Man Comes Around,” in 2002. It was an instant classic for the 71-year-old Cash, whose emotive singing and physical fragility made this song about heartbreak and self-destruction that much more poignant. 

 
5 of 20

"Folsom Prison Blues"

"Folsom Prison Blues"
Donaldson Collection/Getty Images

Johnny Cash came up with the most famous lyric from “Folsom Prison Blues” — “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die” — while serving overseas in the military in the early 1950s. When it was released on Cash’s debut album in 1955, the song shot to #1 on the country charts and later inspired a legendary concert (and live album) from Cash at the actual Folsom State Prison in California. 

 
6 of 20

"Sunday Morning Coming Down"

"Sunday Morning Coming Down"
Gai Terrell/Redferns

Written by Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash isn’t the first person to have recorded “Sunday Morning Coming Down” — that honor goes to Ray Stevens. It’s also been covered by other country artists, including Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson. But the most memorable version of the song came in 1970 when Cash lent his booming baritone to the eternally relevant hangover anthem. 

 
7 of 20

"It Ain't Me Babe"

"It Ain't Me Babe"
Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns

Johnny and June Carter Cash’s killer harmonies made this 1964 Bob Dylan track an instant classic. It’s a perfect showcase of their playful recording relationship, one that was recreated by actors Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon in the 2005 Cash biopic “I Walk The Line.” 

 
8 of 20

"A Boy Named Sue"

"A Boy Named Sue"
Michael Putland/Getty Images

Inarguably one of the best storyteller’s songs ever written, “Boy Named Sue” is, as you might expect, a tale of revenge that centers around a boy named Sue’s search for the no-good father who saddled him with that name. Many fans of the song may not know it was written by popular children’s author Shel Silverstein, about his own experiences with being bullied over his name as a child. 

 
9 of 20

"Riders In The Sky"

"Riders In The Sky"
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Released by Cash in 1979, more than three decades after it was originally written, this classic country tune about a haunted cowboy was a #2 hit. It’s been recorded by many other artists, from Burl Ives to Peggy Lee, but there’s no denying that Cash’s is the most iconic.

 
10 of 20

"Cocaine Blues"

"Cocaine Blues"
Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns

An eternal country murder ballad written by Red Arnall in 1944, Cash recorded multiple versions of “Cocaine Blues” in the 1960s and 1970s. The most iconic came in 1968 when Cash took to the stage at Folsom State Prison in California and entertained thousands of incarcerated people who’d grown to love another Cash tune, “Folsom Prison Blues.”

 
11 of 20

"Cry Cry Cry"

"Cry Cry Cry"
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Cash’s first breakout hit came in 1955, when he moved to Nashville after serving in the military and scored a record deal with Sun Records. The resulting track, “Cry, Cry, Cry,” remains a cult favorite among lifelong Cash fans. 

 
12 of 20

"One Piece At A Time"

"One Piece At A Time"
Gai Terrell/Redferns

A #1 hit for Cash in 1976, “One Piece At A Time” is an anthem for workers everywhere, but especially working on the assembly lines of Detroit during the heyday of American carmaking. Anyone who’s ever worked a job like that can immediately relate to the dream of taking home a Cadillac, part-by-part and running away to a better life. 

 
13 of 20

"I Hung My Head"

"I Hung My Head"
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Yet another incredible Cash cover, “I Hung My Head” was originally written by Sting in an effort to express his admiration for country music, and more specifically, western movies. Cash’s vocals on this version, released on his late-in-life album “American IV: The Man Comes Around” in 1995, lends a particularly gloomy quality to this song about murder and mercy. 

 
14 of 20

"Get Rhythm"

"Get Rhythm"
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Johnny Cash often sang about the trials and tribulations of the working man, and 1956’s “Get Rhythm” is no exception. Written about a shoe shiner who's found a unique way to spruce up the workday, this catchy tune is perfect for cheering up when work feels a little boring. 

 
15 of 20

"Daddy Sang Bass"

"Daddy Sang Bass"
GAB Archive/Redferns

A pop crossover success for Cash, “Daddy Sang Bass” was written by Carl Perkins and released by the Man in Black in 1968. Even though a lot of folks think it’s Cash’s wife June Carter Cash singing the classic “mama sang tenor” line in this call-and-response tune, but it’s actually Grand Ole Opry member Jan Howard. 

 
16 of 20

"Tennessee Flat Top Box"

"Tennessee Flat Top Box"
Rick Diamond/Getty Images

Even though it’s about a “Tennessee flat-top box,” or guitar, “Tennessee Flat Top Box” was written by Cash about an aspiring country singer in Texas. The song got a second life in 1987, when Cash’s daughter Rosanne Cash, an incredibly talented artist in her own right, released her own take. 

 
17 of 20

"Highwayman"

"Highwayman"
Rob Verhorst/Redferns

A song that would eventually become the inspiration for a supergroup that brought together Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, and Johnny Cash, “Highwayman” is a classic troubadour tune with a truly trippy storyline. It was a #1 hit for The Highwaymen in 1984, with each artist taking on the role of a character in the song. 

 
18 of 20

"Long Black Veil"

"Long Black Veil"
Gems/Redferns

“Long Black Veil” has been recorded by countless artists in both country music and beyond, but Johnny Cash released multiple versions of the song during his career and it was frequently included in his live shows. Yet another classic murder ballad that gets an oomph from Cash’s spooky vocals, he was joined by Joni Mitchell for a particularly iconic version of the song on “The Johnny Cash Show” in 1969. 

 
19 of 20

"Wanted Man"

"Wanted Man"
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Written by Bob Dylan, Cash recorded his iconic version of “Wanted Man,” appropriately, during the legendary 1969 concert at San Quentin State Prison. 

 
20 of 20

Don't Take Your Guns to Town"

Don't Take Your Guns to Town"
Paul Natkin/WireImage

A dose of solid life advice for any cowboy, “Don’t Take Your Guns To Town” was released in 1958 on “The Fabulous Johnny Cash.” In the ‘90s, Cash revamped it  in a kid-friendly way — “Don’t Take Your Ones to Town,” a song about counting — for an episode of PBS’s “Sesame Street.” 

Amy McCarthy is a Texas-based journalist. Follow her on twitter at @aemccarthy

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