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Here are five great Johnny Cash songs. How to pay tribute to an American icon? Simple -- just listen to his music

Johnny Cash | MAN IN BLACK TIE Cash (shown in 1977) sang of pain and heartache
Image credit: Johnny Cash: AP Photo
MAN IN BLACK TIE Cash (shown in 1977) sang of pain and heartache

Here are five great Johnny Cash songs

With Johnny Cash's death at age 71, one of the last century's great voices has been silenced. Whether singing of the joys of murder, the pain of love, or the glory of God, Cash's craggy, impossibly resonant, inescapably American baritone was incapable of conveying anything but truth. And he was more than a country artist, with his music both influencing and encompassing folk, blues, and rock (in the '50s he was, along with Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, one of the key artists signed to the legendary Memphis rockabilly label Sun Records).

 

Though he'll never again step to a stage and utter his trademark intro (''Hello, I'm Johnny Cash'') the music of Cash's 48-year-long(!) recording career aren't going anywhere. We picked five performances that will always be with us:

1. ''I Walk the Line'' (1956) Driven by the train-like chugging beat that became Cash's signature (marked on this strikingly minimalist track by Luther Perkins' spiky electric rhythm guitar and little else), Cash's first big hit is both a profession of love and a confession of weakness. ''I keep a close watch on this heart of mine,'' he sings -- a biting lyric that could easily have come from decades-later albums of heartache like Bob Dylan's ''Blood on the Tracks'' or Bruce Springsteen's ''Tunnel of Love.'' (available on ''The Essential Johnny Cash'')

2. ''Ring of Fire'' (1963) A '60s comeback hit (and yes, the soundtrack to the Sony ad with the blue alien), ''Ring of Fire'' shows off Cash's stubborn rejection of the chains of genre: It mixes a rockabilly beat, a Latin-sounding horn section, pop backing vocals, and Cash's talk-singing vocals. Forty years later, it's still catchy as hell, too.

3. ''I Still Miss Someone'' (1959) The B-side to another classic, ''Don't Take Your Guns to Town,'' this country slow jam for the ages shows that Cash could take on Elvis as a master of a heartbreak ballad. Though his magisterial voice made him sound like an Old Testament prophet even when he was in his 20s, he sounds positively gentle here, caressing lines like: ''I wonder if she's sorry/ For leavin' what we'd begun'' (available on ''The Essential Johnny Cash'').

4. ''Folsom Prison Blues'' (Live) (1968) In this stand-out track from Cash's ''At Folsom Prison'' live album, he plays a rocking version of his hardbitten '50s song, which happened to directly reflect the experience of his, um, captive audience. Carl Perkins (no relation to Cash's bandmate Luther, who died before this performance) adds ferocious electric guitar, driving the song past the boundaries of country. And when Cash sings the famous line: ''I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die,'' one dude in the audience yells, ''YEAH!'' Now that's gangsta.

5. ''Hurt'' (2002) Though a formidable songwriter (he wrote or co-wrote the other four songs on our list), Cash was also one of popular music's great interpreters. Over his career, he recorded striking versions of songs by writers ranging from Shel Silverstein (''A Boy Named Sue'') to the Rolling Stones (''No Expectations'') to Soundgarden (''Rusty Cage''). But his greatest cover song may well have been his aching take on Nine Inch Nails' ''Hurt,'' recorded just last year for what may be his final album, ''The Man Comes Around.'' ''Everyone I know goes away in the end,'' he sings, a lifetime of pain trembling in every note.

Originally posted Sep 12, 2003