Johnny Cash should be remembered as the king of covers. His covers of songs such as Hurt, One, Mercy Seat, and so many other songs constantly amaze me. I’ve already stated his version of “(Ghost) Riders in the Sand” outshines any other version. Of course, Cash did more than covers. He made several songs famous, such as “A Boy Named Sue,” “Walk the Line,” “One Piece at a Time,” and of course, “Ring of Fire.” What happens then, when someone covers the king of covers? What happens when others record a cover of Ring of Fire? You’re about to find out! I compare several covers of Ring of Fire to the Johnny Cash version, and ask “who did it best?”
Original Version: Johnny Cash (1963)
As soon as the song starts, we hear some exuberant horns blaring (these horns always makes me giddy for some reason). As the vocals begin, the verses, and even part of the chorus utilizes Johnny Cash’s signature Sprechgesang style. This style of singing, specifically in this song, almost sound as though Cash is thinking out loud throughout the song. This style almost makes us feel like Cash just wants to figure out how he fell into this Ring of Fire, how he fell in love.
There’s not much else to say about the Cash version – as it’s a simple song. Of course, that’s another one of Cash’s styles – simplicity, even in his guitar playing. Cash was an everyman, and was also quite humble. Ring of fire reflects this attitude, and yet tells us so much about Johnny Cash as a person. Ring of Fire says so much with so little.
Cover Version: Eric Burdon (1968)
Eric Burdon (and The Animals) take a totally different approach to Ring of Fire than the original Cash version. Burdon’s version starts with a military drum cadence, along with a choir singing “ah, ahhh ahh ahhh.” Not simple at all, but rather complex.
As Burdon starts the verses, he tones everything down. For the first half of Ring of Fire’s two verses, Burdon’s vocals sound like a whisper, while a simply strung acoustic guitar provides the only accompaniment. During the second half of the verses, Burdon’s voice gains volume. During the chorus, Burdon’s vocals explode in volume, as does the instrumentation….but then everything quiets down to the levels of the first half of the verses.
That’s right, Burdon’s cover version of Ring of Fire mimics a circle…..or a ring.
Cover Version: Eric Burdon (1974)
Eric Burdon did a second cover of Ring of Fire, this time with the Eric Burdon Band. With the 1974 version, Burdon adds a lot more electric blues guitars. While Burdon loses the choir this time, he keeps the military drum cadence and extends this cadence for almost the entire song. Burdon’s vocals are a lot more pronounced in this version and not nearly as subdued as they were in the 1968 version.
The real meaning of Burdon’s 1974 version can be found in the second half of the second verse (which Burdon sings twice, interestingly enough). Burdon almost yells the vocals while the already loud guitars explode with sound. This mimics passion! The passion of falling in love, the passion of burning with desire for another person.
While Burdon’s 1974 cover of Ring of Fire might not hold the same introspection and simplicity as Cash’s original, Burdon’s focus on passion gets the song right.
Cover Version: Wall of Voodoo (1980)
Wall of Voodoo starts Ring of Fire in an outright unrecognizable manner, with repeated notes played on a distortion heavy synthesizer. A few bars in, we hear a familiar guitar sound, and then of course the verses (in a Cash-esque sprechgesang). With the choruses, the melody gets changed a little – the singer’s cadence sounds as though he’s falling.
As the song ends, we’re treated to an extended epilogue of guitars, synths, and other sounds – all playing a spooky chord progression. Again, we get the feeling of falling into something…possibly an inferno.
The sensation of falling (into an inferno) makes us see the Wall of Voodoo cover of Ring of Fire as a literal interpretation.
Cover Version: Dwight Yoakam (1986)
Dwight Yoakam’s cover of Ring of Fire sounds like a cross between honky tonk and rockabilly. The song gives us a fast tempo that’s easy to twirl your sweetheart to on the dancefloor. Yoakam’s cover really doesn’t say much. It’s simple and fun. This is actually the song’s strength. Ring of Fire is a song about falling in love. Dwight Yoakam’s simple, danceable, cover of Ring of Fire depict the fun, of falling into the infernos of passion.
Cover Version: Social Distortion (1990)
Social Distortion gives Ring of Fire the punk rock treatment, really, that’s the best way to describe the song. Heavy guitars, intense vocals, a strong upbeat…..all the elements of punk rock applied to a Johnny Cash song.
However, Social Distortion’s cover shares quite a bit with Yoakam’s. The two versions are extremely danceable, somewhat simple, and just a whole lot fun. These similarities say something. By doing a punk rock cover of Ring of Fire, Social Distortion declares the song to be a song for everyone. No matter what genre you prefer, grab your someone and dance to this song. Falling in love is for everyone after all.
I have no idea what Johnny Cash thought about punk rock. Regardless, I think Cash would love Social Distortion cover of Ring of fire. Again, Johnny himself was an everyman, so bringing Ring of Fire to everyone would probably please him.
Cover Version: Frank Zappa (1991)
Listening to Frank Zappa’s cover of Ring of Fire, one question comes to mind: What the hell did I just listen to?
The song sounds like a lampooning of the song, and of Johnny Cash himself. Zappa’s version of Ring of Fire features verses sung by bandmate Mike Keneally (in a Cash mocking voice) during a live performance. Zappa himself makes offhand remarks all throughout the song, such as “Ow ow ow” after the titular lyrics “I fell into a ring of fire.” If I didn’t know any better, I’d chalk this song up to a band just goofing off at a performance.
The true meaning of this version can be found in one of Zappa’s offhand remarks, “Johnny will never know what he missed.” Johnny Cash was supposed to sing the song with Zappa, but June Carter Cash got sick that night. The show must go on….and so Zappa and band improvised. All of a sudden a song that at best sounds like a band goofing off, and at worst sounds like a jab at Johnny Cash’s song takes on a new meaning. We see it as comedy still, but the people Zappa and band mocks are Zappa and the band.
Cover Version: Alan Jackson (2010)
Alan Jackson delivers a fun, new country cover of Ring of Fire. Essentially, Jackson updates the classic country song to a more modern sound, He ditches the horns and acoustic guitar, and speeds up the tempo. Jackson twangs up the vocals, and even adds a fiddle. A backup female vocalist harmonizes during the chorus, as well as during certain lines on the verses.
Could the world do without Jackson’s cover of Ring of Fire? Probably. While Jackson does modernize the song, Jackson doesn’t really add anything new to the song. Essentially, we feel like Jackson gives us a quasi karaoke version of Ring of Fire. Having said that, I’ll repeat my first sentiment of Jackson’s version: it’s fun. As is Yoakam’s version, and as is Social Distortion’s version. I feel Johnny would approve.
Who did Ring of Fire best?
Before I go on, I’ll confess – Johnny didn’t techncially originate Ring of Fire. His wife’s sister, Anita Carter, sang the song first. Carter’s 1962 version of the song sounds pretty good mind you, but two facts remain. Firstly, Cash’s wife, June Carter Cash wrote the song for Cash as the two fell in love. Secondly, Johnny Cash not only made the song famous, he also made the song his own. Given these facts, while someone sang the song before Johnny, I can’t really call Cash’s version a cover, even though Cash did not record the song first.
So…to the question at hand….who does the song best? I have to eliminate a few versions from the start. Frank Zappa’s “Cashless” version, obviously just doesn’t hold much sway (though it would have been great if June Carter Cash hadn’t gotten sick). I also must eliminate Alan Jackson’s modernization of the song. Like I said, it’s great, but it needs something more. As far as Wall of Voodoo goes….I feel their version of Ring of Fire strays too far from the message of the song. Finally, we’ll eliminate the 1968 Eric Burdon / Animals version. While I love that Burdon and band form a ring with their version, there’s just better versions out there.
That leaves us with the original Cash version, the 1974 Eric Burdon (Band) version, The Dwight Yoakam version, and the Social Distortion version. Let’s cut to the chase – Johnny’s version reigns supreme, so really this is a race for second place. And guess what? That second place is a tie between Dwight Yoakam and Social Distortion. I feel both capture the simplicity, the fun, and the emotions of the original cash version better than any of the other covers. Really, what sets them apart from each other is their genre – one being country, one being punk. So when asking which cover of Ring of Fire is the best, ask yourself if you want a country cover, or do you want a punk cover?
On that note, I’ll leave you with a hilarious Leo Moracchioli’s hilarious heavy metal cover of the Ring of Fire.