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Johnny Cash’s 11 Coolest Cover Songs

From Soundgarden howlers to U2 ballads, Rolling Stone Country counts down 11 of the Man in Black’s most badass covers

Johnny Cash is arguably country music’s most cited influence by younger artists, but Cash wasn’t above being influenced himself. He was forever a student of music, always listening for songs that moved him, be they country or otherwise. Cash would even record his own versions of the songs, from the country-rock of the Stones‘ “No Expectations” to the poignant coda of Nine Inch Nails‘ “Hurt.” Here are the Man in Black’s 11 coolest covers.

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‘I Won’t Back Down’ (Tom Petty)

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers served as Cash's band for his 1996 Unchained album, but this take on Petty's Full Moon Fever track appeared not on that LP, but 2000's American III: Solitary Man. Still, Petty appears here to harmonize with Cash, who after battling illness, imbues the song with added defiance.

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‘Rusty Cage’ (Soundgarden)

Of all the covers in Cash's catalog, this one stands as the biggest head-scratcher. That doesn't mean it's a misfire, however. Rather, Cash's interpretation of this Soundgarden howler is a brilliant bit of Southern gothic. The moodiness is palpable, like a muggy night on the Delta.

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‘I’m on Fire’ (Bruce Springsteen)

Cash cut this Born in the U.S.A. single for a 2000 Springsteen tribute album, humming and growling through the ballad like a restless troubadour, hankering for his journey to end for the night. Springsteen's music clearly resonated with Cash, who used "Highway Patrolman" to open his Johnny 99 album.

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‘Have You Ever Seen the Rain’ (Creedence Clearwater Revival)

Full of Eighties production touches — call and response vocals, metallic-sounding keyboards — this CCR cover, and the album on which it appears, 1985’s Rainbow, stand as testament to Cash’s fallow period. But that’s not to say it’s not one heckuva listen — if only for the deliciously out-of-place echo effect on Cash’s voice.

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‘Redemption Day’ (Sheryl Crow)

Cash and Sheryl Crow had a close relationship in his later years, and Crow often recalls a phone call from the ailing artist about him cutting this song. Released on the posthumous American VI: Ain't No Grave, "Redemption Day," recorded in the months leading up to his death, is the sound of a man coming to terms with his impending exit.

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‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ (The Band)

In 1975, the Man in Black released John R. Cash, which featured one of Robbie Robertson and the Band's most evocative compositions. Cash's version is more uptempo, almost upbeat, with hints of Dixieland Jazz. It's a strange experience, but representative of what Cash could do with a lyric.

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‘Hurt’ (Nine Inch Nails)

Cash's most famous cover, recognized by MTV for its haunting music video, "Hurt" has become synonymous with the Country Music Hall of Famer's final days. Frail, hollow-eyed and shaking in the video, those same tremors are felt in his vocal delivery. It is the sound of resignation.

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