Ring of Fire: The Best of Johnny Cash (1963)

Written by: Mark Anderson. 21 Oct 2014.

Johnny Cash was without a doubt one of one of the most influential country music artists of the 20th century. Cash’s album Ring of Fire: The Best of Johnny Cash was a massive hit, debuting #1 when Billboard debuted their Country Album Chart for the first time. The album does not only include Country music though, it also includes songs with the rock n roll and blues sounds that Cash was known for. Ring of Fire: The Best of Johnny Cash is the product of years of talent and creativity brought together by Johnny Cash.

Ring of Fire: The Best of Johnny Cash was released in 1963, during the beginning of Cash’s downward spiral. The album was a collection of tracks from 1959-1963, during his first years on the Columbia label. By this point in his life, he was a national superstar and the life that ensued that kind of fame often involved drug use to take some of the pressure off. “With an unrelenting tour schedule, Cash was on the road 300 nights a year” (Cash).

He had been abusing drugs for quite some time and was not seeking to quit. But, this addiction did not have much of an effect on his career where he showed he could still keep focus. He continued to perform show after show, tour after tour, without much backlash from drug use. Cash’s showed that his “association with Columbia was defined by a commitment and focus unparalleled in the rest of his long career” (Streissguth, 96).

This immense focus by Cash came with his desire to dig up the Country’s thick and tangled roots through his music. In this album, “he assembled a body of work that reflected his passion for interpreting in song American history and legends as well as the reality of rural folk, blue-collar workers, prison convicts, and American Indians” (Streissguth, 96). Unfortunately, this time of focus only seemed to last until a few years, where Cash’s drug use and association with the wrong people got the better of him.

Johnny Cash used his music to communicate to his fans of the struggles that he has gone through, and the current journey he is on in life. Cash’s soon-to-be wife (at the time), June Carter Cash, wrote the song “Ring of Fire.” When performing, Cash says he “fell into a burning ring of fire,” which I strongly believe is a metaphor of how he started using drugs and quickly became addicted (and stuck in his own “burning ring of fire”). “But the schedule and the pressures that faced him took a toll on his personal life” (Cash).

Unfortunately, his personal and family life are the areas where his efforts fell short. He was stuck in a dilemma between his drug addiction, and the hope of keeping his wife and children a part of his life. He lived the life of a musical superstar, which made the goal of keeping and maintaining his family back home satisfied difficult.

One of the underlying themes in Ring of Fire: The Best of Johnny Cash involves redemption, and pulling yourself out any negative situation you are in. Cash was a very strong supporter of redeeming yourself and making things right, and this showed his caring side to his fans.

I believe he found his “redemption” in religion. Cash discovered Christianity after he had hit rock bottom, following a drug related suicide attempt. Cash expresses his deep religious faith to his audience in his songs: “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord” and “Peace in the Valley.” After all the ups and downs he had endured, religion was one of the missing pieces to the puzzle of his life. After he became a Christian, his life started to turn around for the better, and many of his other problems seemed to be a distant memory. Through his music and newfound faith, Cash was an effective communicator in the perspective he had on life.

In Ring of Fire: The Best of Johnny Cash, Cash lets us into his own thoughts. While on tour, Cash is facing a few issues back home, many of which he has been neglecting altogether. “Though initially Vivian (his wife) quietly tolerated Cash’s drug use, her courage to speak grew with her desperation. What else could she do, even if her pleading sent Cash storming from the house? She wanted a husband and father in her home” (Streissguth, 98). Cash’s wife saw much trouble with his absent, reckless lifestyle and wanted him to tone it down for the sake of their family.

Vivian was growing increasingly frustrated with his absence in her and their family’s life. While she was hurting due to Cash’s absence and lack of care, he was spending most of his time getting high and performing on the road. But, eventually she felt that enough was enough, and she took action. “In 1966 Vivian finally filed for divorce. Cash returned to Memphis, where his life continued to spiral out of control” (Cash). Cash was obviously troubled when the situation unfolded, and needed a way to express how he was feeling. He decided that his music was an appropriate way to tell the story of what he was going through with his family and unpredictable life. Furthermore, the story Cash tells through this album and the contexts used are very important in understanding it.

Ring of Fire: The Best of Johnny Cash is a very influential album and it portrays Cash’s perspectives, thoughts, and feelings. Being aware of Cash’s life during this time period can help us dig deeper into the album, and help understand the motives behind it. He was going through very much and he was a master at transforming those things into amazing music that possessed meaning. Cash’s immense perseverance and talent will always be remembered in his music. Overall, Cash in his album Ring of Fire: The Best of Johnny communicates his thoughts and feelings in a way that many of his fans have come to know and love.

Track list:

  1. Ring of Fire” (June Carter CashMerle Kilgore) – 2:38
  2. “I’d Still Be There” (Cash, Johnny Horton) – 2:34
  3. “What Do I Care” (Cash) – 2:07
  4. I Still Miss Someone” (Johnny Cash, Roy Cash) – 2:35
  5. “Forty Shades of Green” (Cash) – 2:54
  6. “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord” (Traditional) with The Carter Family – 3:56
  7. “The Rebel – Johnny Yuma” (Richard Markowitz, Andrew Fenady) – 1:52
  8. “Bonanza” (Jay LivingstonRay Evans) – 2:20
  9. “The Big Battle” (Cash) – 4:03
  10. Remember the Alamo” (Jane Bowers) – 2:50
  11. Tennessee Flat Top Box” (Cash) – 3:00
  12. Peace In The Valley” (Thomas A. Dorsey) with The Carter Family – 2:47

Works cited:

“Johnny Cash Biography.” Www.biography.com. A&E Television Network, n.d. Web

Streissguth, Michael. “Johnny Cash: The Biography.” N.p., 2007. Web. 10 Oct. 2014.