Ring of Fire is one of the oddest hit songs in country music with it’s droning chorus that spirals “down, down, down” with it’s dark idea of love and those mariachi horns kicking it off providing a heat and vitality not often found in Johnny Cash’s music. The story seemed simple enough. June Carter, who at the time was still married to Carl Smith, had fallen deeply in love with the drug-addled wild man, Johnny Cash. She took some lines she had read in her uncle A.P. Carter’s songbook and worked them up into a tortured love song with Merle Kilgore.
That seems as good a story as any. A.P., who’s marriage to Sara Carter, June’s aunt, was filled with the stoic and unspoken pain of love unrevealed. These lines would have spoken strongly to him, though his was a fettered and chained love never to truly ignite.
June and Johnny didn’t have that problem. Quite the opposite as the story goes.
Those mariachi horns, Johnny claimed, came to him in a dream. I don’t imagine all his dreams at that time were quite so wonderful.
Nothing is that simple though. Cowboy Jack Clement produced the song and was the one man who produced country records in 1963 who would have thought using mariachi horns was a good idea. Not just a good idea either. He could have thought up the gimmick himself. And with the amount of drugs Johnny was feeding himself in those dark days it’s hard to tell what might have been a dream and what might have been crazy Jack Clement saying, “you know what would sound really great on this record?”
In her book I Walk the Line, Johnny’s first wife, Vivian Liberto, disputes how it was written. She said Johnny wrote it in a drug haze as dirty metaphor and gave it June to record. That’s as easy to believe as the first story. Both women have motivations, both women were there.
The one thing that bothers me though is June. I’m not saying either woman lied. Time and memory is far too tricky for such off-handed judgement, but June would go on to talk about writing the song that became one of her husband’s signature pieces in a way that doesn’t strike me as false. In other words, why lie? Vivian said it was because she needed the money. I can’t imagine most would have thought this weird little song of love and lust would have become such a hit.
That’s the whole point though, who can say? No matter who wrote it and why and in what state, it pretty accurately summed up the way they were all feeling in 1963.
Today marks the 49th anniversary of when Johnny recorded Ring of Fire. Love is a burning thing.