My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Single Review: Alan Jackson – ‘Ring of Fire’

Some songs take on legendary status nearly as big as their singers.  Of course, even the Music City folk-lore that surrounds the composition and recording of Johnny Cash’s ‘Ring of Fire’ doesn’t rival the Man in Black’s stature, ‘Ring’, however, is a fascinating story in itself.  History tells us that June Carter co-wrote the tune with Merle Kilgore, putting her feelings for Cash down in the process.  Other sources may tell you that it was actually Cash who co-wrote the song and gave half to the financially-strapped Carter.

Whichever side you believe, or who the author of the lyrics are, the fact remains that the blossoming love affair between Johnny Cash and June Carter was the inspiration for the original creation.  Johnny Cash’s passionate delivery of the horn-infused track – according to his biography, the idea to frame the verses with horns came to Cash in a dream – is the kind deemed untouchable by cover standards, as any subsequent recording would almost always walk a fine line between irrelevance and tribute. Alan Jackson’s recent take on the tune, the only previously unreleased track on Jackson’s current 34 Number Ones set, unfortunately falls somewhere in between the two.

Jackson’s own catalog lends him an air of believability few on Music Row can match, and he offers up his best bass vocal here, channeling Cash with all high might. But try as he might, Jackson just can’t fill the shoes he’s planted himself in this time. The addition of Lee Ann Womack’s harmony in the chorus add a depth to Jackson’s own enjoyable performance, but the lack of horns make the melody almost unrecognizable to me, and a chunky guitar fill adds little more than filler noise.  Two of the best neo-traditional country music voices of their generation tackling a timeless country classic all add up here to much less than the sum of their parts.

Grade: C-

Listen here.

6 responses to “Single Review: Alan Jackson – ‘Ring of Fire’

  1. Ken Johnson December 8, 2010 at 5:19 pm

    It’s extremely difficult to remake a classic song so completely associated with one particular artist. Johnny Cash’s definitive take on “Ring Of Fire” is so imbedded in our consciousness that it’s almost impossible to hear anyone else do it justice. Cash’s future sister-in-law Anita Carter was the first to record the song for Mercury. After her single failed to chart Cash recorded his version with Anita joining her mother and sisters for the background vocals.

    One noteworthy recent version of the song was recorded in 2003 by the now defunct duo Bristol Crossing for the Lofton Creek label. Their arrangement featured a female lead vocal with fiddles substituted for trumpets. Their production proved quite effective in my book.

    Johnny Cash’s ex-wife Vivian recalled the creation of the song in her book “I Walked The Line – My Life With Johnny Cash.” Vivian says that Johnny wrote the song with Merle Kilgore on a fishing trip, “while pilled up and drunk about a certain private female body part.” Though June played no part in the songs creation Johnny gave her his half of the writing credit because he claimed that she needed the money and he felt sorry for her. Vivian said that June later made up elaborate stories about writing the song for Johnny but probably never knew what the title of the song was actually referring to.

  2. Occasional Hope December 8, 2010 at 6:01 pm

    I think Lee Ann’s harmonies are what save this version from being disposable. I don’t particularly miss the horns, though.

  3. Razor X December 8, 2010 at 8:48 pm

    I agree with Ken that this is a song that nobody can really sing except for Johnny Cash. For that reason, I’m surprised that Jackson and his label even attempted to touch this one. I think the decision to omit the horns was a wise one; including them would have looked too much like they were trying to copy Cash’s version.

    • Leeann Ward December 9, 2010 at 12:49 am

      I think the song is naked without the horns, but I agree with Razor about it being wise not to use them here. As I pretty much said in my review of the song, I think it’s a waste of a previously unreleased track.

      I don’t know if the story about “Ring of Fire” is true, but I suppose it doesn’t really matter, because the song’s greatness is not embedded in the story behind the song, but rather, Johnny Cash’s certain carisma when presenting the song. That’s probably why it’s so impossible for anyone else, in my opinion, to do the song justice. If you dissect the song, it’s not exactly a lyrical masterpiece; it’s Johnny Cash’s performance and those horns that sell it.

  4. pwdennis December 9, 2010 at 10:19 am

    Interestingly enough, in the UK a single and album were issued on “Ring of Fire” by the incomparable Burl Ives (the album was released in the US under a different title. The song got some airplay on the BBC although I don’t believe it charted

    I do like Burl’s version of the song, but then, Burl Ives could sing anything and make it sound good

  5. speedbird December 27, 2012 at 2:07 pm

    I much prefer the use of the octave-reduced guitar rather than the horns. Lynch me but I like like Jackson’s version better!

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