“Johnny Cash was like Abraham Lincoln to me,” says beloved songwriter John Prine in a new video discussing his relationship with the late Man in Black. And Cash, it turns out, was one of the only people for whom Prine would alter one of his own lyrics.
As Prine tells it, Cash was working with producer Cowboy Jack Clement and wanted to record “Sam Stone,” the harrowing story of a drug-addicted combat veteran that first appeared on Prine’s 1971 debut. The second half of the song’s key line, “There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes / And Jesus Christ died for nothing, I suppose,” proved to be a tough one for Cash, who was a devout man and aware of how it might be perceived.
“He didn’t feel comfortable singing that line,” says Prine. “I said, ‘Well you know, it’s the heart of the song for me. It’s everything in the song kind of fell out of that one line. I know where I’m coming from when I say that. It means there’s no hope. If a veteran’s gonna come home to be treated like that and nobody’s gonna help him with his drug habit, then what’s the use in living?'”
Prine allowed Cash to make an adjustment, updating the line to “Daddy must have hurt a lot back then, I suppose.”
“I figured, it’s Johnny Cash,” he says. “All I know is he’s singing my song.”
Cash’s version of “Sam Stone” can be heard on the posthumous 2005 LP Live from Austin TX, the tracks for which were culled from a 1987 taping session.
Prine’s latest album, For Better, Or Worse, was released in September 2016 and features duet performances with Lee Ann Womack, Kacey Musgraves and Amanda Shires. In April 2016, Prine’s label Oh Boy Records released his first-ever songbook, Beyond Words. On July 27th, Jason Isbell, Brothers Osborne and more will perform Prine’s songs in Nashville at a benefit show for musician Jessi “Zazu” Wariner, who is fighting cancer.