The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #137: Ring of Fire by Johnny Cash (RS)

This list of songs is inspired by lists published by radio station KEXP-FM from Seattle in 2010, as well as the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part I will faithfully countdown from their lists, starting at Song #500 and going until I reach Song #1. When you see the song title listed as something like: Song #XXX (KEXP)….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. Song XXX (RS) means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: Song #xxx (KTOM), it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In any case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, just so everyone is aware, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Here is the story behind today’s song. Enjoy.

RS: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #137: Ring of Fire by Johnny Cash.

“Ring of Fire” is one of the songs that is most synonymous with the Man in Black, himself. Even as I type these words, the deep, dulcet tones of his voice are echoing in my mind as he sings,

I fell in to a burning ring of fire.

I fell down, down, down

And the flames went higher.

And it burns, burns, burns,

that ring of fire, that ring of fire.”

But, here is the big thing to know about this song…..Johnny Cash did not write this song. However, the person who did write the song did so with Cash as the subject. The author of “Ring of Fire” was, none other than, a young, rising Country star-in-the-making named June Carter. “Ring of Fire” is a song about temptation and, in particular, about being tempted by something or someone that you are fairly certain will cause you heartache and pain. “Ring of Fire” was written four years before Johnny Cash married June Carter. At the time it was written, both Cash and Carter were with other people. But, the spark of their attraction toward each other had happened as they sang together at various concerts and events; he, with his band and she, with The Carter Family Singers. In addition, it was during these touring days that Johnny Cash was at his worst when it came to alcohol abuse. June Carter saw him show up drunk for performances. She witnessed him miss rehearsals all together. She saw his temper flare under the influence of the liquid fire that controlled him so. But still, to her, the pull of his essence was undeniable. If you watched the movie based on Cash’s life, “Walk the Line”, you will know that Cash was attracted to June Carter, too but, that she gave him an ultimatum that stated she would never become involved with him as long as he was married and as long as he abused alcohol. Eventually, Cash’s marriage fell apart and he approached Carter, anew, promising to be a better man. She, now free as well, accepted his oath and promised to help him to stay sober. When Johnny Cash, himself, tells the story of this moment, he readily declared that June Carter saved his life by agreeing to become his wife. They remained married for over forty years, until her death and then, his, shortly thereafter, in the early 2000s.

Let it be said that June Carter was just as respected as a performer as Johnny cash ever was. When Johnny Cash was just beginning his career, being able to perform on the same bill as The Carter Family was a high honour. In Country Music circles, The Carter Family were akin to music royalty and so, there was great risk to Johnny Cash’s career should he enter into a relationship with a Carter Family member and end up doing her wrong. June Carter had a fine career of her own both, as June Carter and then, as June Carter Cash. Over the course of her career, June Carter won five Grammy Awards and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, as well as, the Christian Music Hall of Fame.

June Carter sang professionally from the age of ten; singing with her sisters, Helen and Anita, along with her mother, Maybelle and her father, Ezra Carter. Singing at events all over the Nashville area, June Carter and her sisters shared many a stage with all manner of the Country stars of the day. But, it was when she started appearing with Johnny Cash and his band, that the idea for “Ring of Fire” began to form in her mind. The inspiration for the phrase, “Ring of Fire” came from a line of poetry in a book that her uncle, A.P. Carter had laying around. That line read, “Love is like a burning ring of fire“. After the song was written, it was first recorded by June’s sister, Anita. Upon hearing Anita sing the song, Johnny Cash asked to record it later if her version did not sell well. As it turned out, Anita Carter’s attempt did not sell well so, Johnny Cash was given the chance to record the song. Just before doing so, Cash had a feverish, alcohol-fuelled dream in which he recorded “Ring of Fire”, not as a folk song (as it was at the time) but, with a full section of Mexican mariachi horns in the background. As unusual as this was, the horn embellishments helped to give, “Ring of Fire” a much peppier and distinctive air; making it stand out in a sea of twang-filled ditties that so populated the Country Music landscape at the time.

So, as much as “Ring of Fire” has come to be known as one of Johnny Cash’s signature songs, it has more to do with June Carter than with him. “Ring of Fire” is a song that chronicles love in the face of adversity, commitment in a time of addiction and denotes a chapter in the life of one of America’s greatest musical families: The Carters.

So, let those mariachi horns blare! Here is “Ring of Fire”, as written about the Man in Black by the woman, June Carter, who loved him despite it all. Enjoy.

The link to the video for the song, “Ring of Fire” by Johnny Cash, can be found here.

The link to the official website for Johnny Cash, can be found here.

The link to the official website for June Carter Cash, can be found here.

The link to the official website for The Carter Family Singers, can be found here.

The link to the official website for Rolling Stone magazine, can be found here.

Author: Tom MacInnes

Among the many characters I play: husband, father, son, retired elementary school teacher, writer, Cape Bretoner, lover of hot tea and, above all else, a gentleman. I strive to make a positive difference in the lives of others. In Life, I have chosen to be kind.

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