There’s some interesting trivia about Johnny Cash, one of the defining American musicians of the 20th century. His last big hit, “Hurt”, was written by Trent Reznor (and recorded by his Nine Inch Nails.) When Reznor was first asked about allowing Cash to record the song, he agreed but with reservations: he told Cash’s people that he didn’t think a rendition by Cash would work. After the recording was done, Reznor was among the first allowed to hear it. Trent Reznor admits that he was in tears by the end, and completely recanted his doubts.
A few years prior, he’d recorded another, somewhat more defiant tune… also a cover… this one, “I Won’t Back Down”, originally written and recorded by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. That song is notable because of who Cash convinced to give backing vocals. The aforementioned Petty steps in and sings the backing line on his own song.
While those provide signs of how much respect he held within his industry, the most notable story regarding a Johnny Cash song is arguably one from more than two dozen years prior, and it’s about his oddest hit.
“A Boy Named Sue” is another Cash cover. This time, the writer was most famous not as a musician but as a children’s story author: Shel Silverstein, the creator of “The Giving Tree” and “Where the Sidewalk Ends”. Cash heard the song, liked it, and was convinced by his wife to practice the song so he could play it live at a concert he was due to play in just a couple of days. He did so, and when he played the song the audience went crazy… a reaction which was heard by people around the country when the recording of his Live At San Quentin was released.
The song was such a hit that Cash went on to record a studio version.
Shel had granted Johnny authorization to play the song, but Shel himself hadn’t had much of a chance to show it off before Cash made it famous. The reason Cash knew the song at all was because Shel had debuted it in front of Johnny… at a party in Johnny Cash’s house just days before the San Quentin concert.
It wasn’t the only song to debut there. A number of musicians were in attendance, and they’d taken it upon themselves to show off their works-in-progress and songs they’d polished for upcoming recordings. Other songs which were first publicly played that night? “Lay Lady Lay” by Bob Dylan, “Marrakesh Express” by Graham Nash and “Me and Bobby McGee” by Kris Kristofferson.
Cash could cover, but he also threw a hell of a party.
Question of the night: What’s one of your favorite live tracks?