In 1958, Johnny Cash left Sun Records to sign with Columbia. Less than a year later, he earned his first Number One country hit with the label, “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town.” His next chart-topper wouldn’t come for another four years, but when it did, it earned Cash the reputation of being a trend-setter.
Beginning in the late Forties, Cash’s future sister-in-law, Anita Carter, who played bass (sometimes standing on her head) performed with her sisters Helen and June, and their mother, Maybelle Carter, becoming the second generation of the singing clan to achieve stardom. Anita, although widely acknowledged as the best singer among her sisters, only achieved significant country-radio airplay as part of the Carter clan or as one half of a duet, earning Top Five hits with Hank Snow and Waylon Jennings. And although she was the first to record a song her sister June co-wrote with Merle Kilgore, Anita’s version of the song, then known as “Love’s Ring of Fire,” passed nearly unnoticed by the public — until Johnny Cash recorded it.
As recalled in the liner notes to an Anita Carter CD box set, in 1962, June Carter was touring with Johnny Cash for the first time. Also on the tour was songwriter Merle Kilgore, who that same year was watching his composition “Wolverton Mountain” enjoy a nine-week run at Number One. Kilgore, who would later become Hank Williams Jr.’s longtime manager, also served as best man when Cash married June Carter in 1968. While on tour, Merle and June would often get together to write. They continued to do so at home, because they both lived north of Nashville, only four blocks apart. At one of their morning meetings, June noted the underlined phrase “Love is like a burning ring of fire” in a book of Elizabethan poetry that had been owned by her uncle, A.P. Carter. Although they started the song, they ended up unable to finish it, so Kilgore went home.
When Anita called June from the studio that day to tell her she needed one more song to complete her album, June quickly summoned Merle back so they could finish the song. Written and recorded quickly, the tune was picked by Billboard as a hit for Anita in November 1962, but the song failed to chart. Meanwhile, Johnny had heard it and in a dream also heard Mexican trumpets accompanying it. He told Anita he would give her a few months then record it the way he had imagined it. That’s just what he did, on March 25th, 1963, with Mother Maybelle, Helen, June and Anita Carter singing harmony. Fifty-three years ago today, on April 19th, 1963, Columbia Records released Cash’s distinct version of the song that tells the tale of a passionate love affair — and may or may not have been code for a female body part.
Of course, when Johnny and June went public with their relationship, the song’s torrid theme took on added significance, becoming even more enigmatic as it gained wider popularity throughout the next several decades. In the 2005 biopic Walk the Line, June (played by Oscar winner Reese Witherspoon) is seen writing the song’s lyrics down while driving to her sister’s house in tears. However, in her 2007 memoir, I Walked the Line, Cash’s first wife (and mother of his four daughters) Vivian alleges that in 1963 — several months after Anita’s version had been released — her then-husband told her he had just written the song (with its title referring to a female body part) with Kilgore on a fishing trip, a claim later backed by Cash’s friend Curly Lewis, who was also fishing with them that day.
Regardless of which account of the song’s origin is accurate, Cash’s version of “Ring of Fire,” complete with mariachi horns, was a Number One country hit for seven weeks in the summer of ’63, reaching the Top 20 on the pop chart as well. That August, he even recorded a Spanish-language version of the tune.
Since Anita Carter’s first version in 1962, “Ring of Fire” has been covered countless times, from Blondie’s 1980 energetic cowpunk take to Frank Zappa’s decidedly weird re-imagining of it. Other favorites: Coldplay‘s acoustic rendition (complete with Chris Martin changing guitars mid-song) and Pat Benatar and husband Neil Giraldo’s “Heartbreaker”/”Ring of Fire” mash-up from last year.
In addition to the above performance — a classic clip from his ABC variety series (which includes a false start on the vocal) — Cash performed the song when he hosted Saturday Night Live in 1982. He also sang it at the opening of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1995. The song was inducted into the Gammy Hall of Fame in 1999.