PHOTO: The Estate of David Gahr / Contributor / Getty Images
Inside the Song: Johnny Cash and 'Ring of Fire'
How the outlaw country classic came to be and why it continues to "burn, burn, burn".
By Alex Baker
Few songs instantly captivate the ear like Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire". With its mariachi horns, “boom-chicka-boom” guitar rhythm, gospel backing vocals and Cash’s trademark baritone, the song is utterly unmistakable from the first measure. And it seems as though "Ring of Fire" is tailor-made for new players.
Released on April 19, 1963, “Ring of Fire” was one of Cash’s biggest hits and appeared on the album Ring of Fire: The Best of Johnny Cash. The song was co-written by Cash’s future wife, June Carter, and songwriter/producer Merle Kilgore.
'Ring of Fire' as it appeared on 1963's best-of collection of the same title.
Carter allegedly came up with the idea for “Ring of Fire” while driving around one night, stewing over the fact that she was drawn to this dangerous man, despite his mixed-up, wild lifestyle. She couldn’t resist him.
“There is no way to be in that hell, no way to extinguish a flame that burns, burns, burns,” she wrote.
Carter, who would marry Cash five years later (co-writer Kilgore was best man at the wedding), supposedly lifted the song’s title from a book of Elizabethan poetry belonging to her uncle. She didn’t write the song intending it for her future husband though, but rather for her sister, Anita Carter, who recorded a version of the song under the title “(Love’s) Ring of Fire”.
"Ring of Fire" was first recorded as "(Love's) Ring of Fire" by co-writer June Carter's sister, Anita Carter.
But Cash liked the song and wanted to do his own version, claiming the idea to add Mexican horns came to him in a dream. He told Anita he’d give her version six months, and if it failed to become a hit, he’d record it his way.
So it was that on March 25, 1963, Cash went into the studio with legendary country producer Don Law to record his version of “Ring of Fire”, his band the Tennessee Three, featuring guitarist Luther Perkins, in tow.
Perkins, who died tragically in 1968 after falling asleep with a lit cigarette, was instrumental in innovating Cash’s trademark “boom-chicka-boom” sound. A founding member of Cash’s original band, the Tennessee Two, the guitarist played on all of Cash’s early recordings, including “Folsom Prison Blues", “I Walk the Line", and of course “Ring of Fire”.
The son of a Baptist preacher, Perkins had a sparse, twangy guitar style that was incredibly percussive and leant itself perfectly to the runaway train quality of Cash’s early country meets rockabilly recordings.
Known for alternating between a Fender Esquire, a Jazzmaster and a Jaguar, Perkins developed the “boom-chicka-boom” sound as a means of volume control. Resting the heel of his hand on the bridge to mute the bass strings (E, A and D), he would pick out simple rhythm patterns often with random syncopation.
This would drive the rhythm while Perkins left the high strings unmuted, to give his leads and solos an illuminative brightness that interplayed perfectly with Cash’s deep, rolling drawl. It’s a simple, but incredibly effective style, and it’s a huge part of what gives “Ring of Fire” its infectious, unmistakable rhythm.
Ranked at No. 87 in Rolling Stone’s “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time” and at No. 4 in CMT’s "100 Greatest Songs of Country Music", “Ring of Fire” has inspired a legion of cover versions by everyone from Eric Burdon and the Animals to Social Distortion.
Johnny Cash, the Tennessee Three and guests performing "Ring of Fire". Note Luther Perkins' rhythmic Jaguar work.
Kilgore, the song’s co-author often jokingly dedicated “Ring of Fire” to “the makers of Preparation H” in his live performances. In 2004, the makers of a hemorrhoid-relief product actually inquired about licensing the song. Kilgore thought the idea was funny and was game.
Thankfully, in a victory for good taste, Johnny’s daughter, Rosanne Cash, put her foot down, maintaining that “the song was about the transformative power of love, and that’s what is has always meant to me. That’s what it will always mean to the Cash children.”