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.
Cash added signature gravitas to U2's mega ballad when he cut the song for 2000's American III: Solitary Man. A spare, acoustic arrangement, Cash's version finds him speak-singing the lyrics, infusing them with a vitriol Bono could never muster. The line "did I disappoint you, or leave a bad taste in your mouth?" is downright indignant.
Cash didn't just record this Bruce Springsteen Nebraska lament, he titled an entire album after the song in 1983 — just a year after Springsteen released it himself. In Cash's hands, it's more of a rockabilly saloon anthem, but the message of a man-turned-inmate is no less tragic.
The Stones country-tinged ballad was ironically made less so by Cash, who sped it up and added a touch of bluegrass and Spanish flair. Released 10 years after Mick and Keith put it out on Beggars Banquet, Cash made the song a centerpiece of his 1978 Gone Girl album.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.