In a 1970 newspaper interview, songwriter Kris Kristofferson recalled his arrival in Nashville a few years earlier by saying he “rocketed straight to the bottom.” A couple of years later he would become one of the most-covered songsmiths in town, with songs including “For the Good Times,” “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” and “Me and Bobby McGee” leading the charge. “Nashville was like Paris in the Twenties,” he told Rolling Stone in a 2009 profile by actor-director Ethan Hawke. “We’d stay up all night trying to knock each other out with our songs. It was both kind of exciting and kind of depressing.”
One of the Texas-born former Army captain’s most legendary songs to emerge from those heady early days was “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” Told from the perspective of a downcast narrator who after having a beer for breakfast stands on a “Sunday morning sidewalk wishin’ I was stoned,” the lyrics suggested Kristofferson had a clear understanding what “the bottom” was all about. Late in 1969, it became the debut country single for Ray Stevens, a pop star who had previously scored Top Ten hits with the decidedly more comical “Gitarzan” and “Ahab the Arab.” Stevens’ version missed the Top Forty on the country chart and only dented the pop chart, but soon got the attention of several artists, with easy-listening singer Vicki Carr the next to record it for an LP of country pop titled Nashville by Carr, followed closely by Opry star Roy Drusky.
On February 18th, 1970, Carr would beat Cash to the punch by a week, performing the song on Cash’s show before he did. But once the Man in Black did, he made it his own. Cash debuted his definitive version of “Sunday Morning Coming Down” 50 years ago today, on the Wednesday, February 25th, 1970, edition of his ABC variety series’ “Ride This Train” segment. The episode also featured appearances by Kenny Rogers and the First Edition, Cass Elliott, and comedian Bob Hope, who would duet with Cash on his most recent Number One country song, “A Boy Named Sue.”
In October 1970, Cash’s performance of the song appeared on an LP titled The Johnny Cash Show, minus the lengthy introduction that accompanied it on the series. Speaking of the Great Depression of the 1930s and of the many men who hopped freights to look for work during that time, including his own father, Cash reasoned that while freight-hopping wasn’t as popular, people were still doing a lot of soul-searching. “I suppose we’ve all … all of us been at one time or another ‘[a] drifter at heart,’ and today, like yesterday, there’s many that are on that road heading out. Not searching maybe for work, as much as for self-fulfillment, or understanding of their life … trying to find a meaning for their life. … Many who have drifted — including myself — have found themselves no closer to peace of mind than a dingy backroom, on some lonely Sunday morning, with it coming down all around you.”
For years, tales of nervous ABC censors have surrounded Cash’s first performance of the song for a nationwide TV audience, with the 2009 Rolling Stone profile noting that Kristofferson watched backstage at the Ryman Auditorium, where the episodes were taped, as censors approached Cash to suggest changing the line, “Wishing, Lord, that I was stoned,” to “Wishing, Lord, that I was home.” Kristofferson protested it would change the meaning of the song to leave the word “stoned” out, but added that he trusted Cash to handle it properly. What Cash did next was … nothing. He sang the song as written. In fact, in all subsequent performances of the song on the show, the word “stoned” remained, just as it had a week earlier in Carr’s version, so if the censors did take issue with it at first, they got over whatever fears they had. The above performance appeared in an episode that first aired two months later, in April 1970, with Cash mentioning in the intro that Kristofferson would soon be appearing on an episode.
Released as a single on the last day of July, “Sunday Morning Coming Down” was a Number One country hit by early October and earned Kristofferson a CMA Song of the Year award four days after it reached the top. In addition to the more than 100 cover versions, it would become a Cash standard. Kristofferson would continue to perform the song in his own shows, including a 2017 appearance at England’s Glastonbury Festival, where he sang it with actor Johnny Depp.