When I was younger, I never understood why musicians were sometimes described as singer-songwriters. Didn’t everyone do both? Why would someone not write their own music? Over time it became clear that some musicians weren’t lyricists, making the label “singer-songwriter” much more revealing (and honorable) than I ever understood. Turns out even the biggest singer-songwriters need help sometimes, and Johnny Cash is one of them.
At a party Cash held in February of 1969, a number of his friends tried out their latest songs. It was nothing big, just Bob Dylan singing “Lay Lady Lay,” Joni Mitchell singing “Both Sides Now,” and Shel Silverstein (author of classic children’s books like Where the Sidewalk Ends and The Giving Tree) singing “A Boy Named Sue.” You know, forgettable guests playing forgettable songs.
Cash fell in love with Silverstein’s song, asking him to write the words down before he left for California the next day to perform at a prison in San Quentin. It was there that Cash recorded a follow-up to the previous year’s hit album, At Folsom Prison, playing “I Walk the Line,” “Ring of Fire,” and, for the first time, Silverstein’s “A Boy Named Sue.”
“I’d only sung it the first time the night before and I read it off as I sang it,” Cash said. “I still didn’t know the words. As a last resort, I pulled those lyrics out and laid them on the music stand, and when it came time that I thought I was brave enough, I did the song.”
What was a hit in the prison became a hit on the radio. Columbia Records agreed to release “A Boy Named Sue” as a single. The song sat on top of the country charts for five straight weeks, landed at #2 on the pop charts, and became Cash’s biggest-selling single. In 1970, the song went on to win a Grammy for Best Country Song. Eight years later, Silverstein wrote and recorded a sequel, “The Father of a Boy Named Sue,” which retold the story from the dad’s point of view, winning our hearts all over again. What else could you expect?
If this leaves you wanting more from Johnny Cash, you’re in luck. A record comprised of lost material will be coming out next year.