The Story Behind the Johnny Cash Hit ‘Ring of Fire’

via Johnny Cash / Youtube

Johnny Cash, a legendary country music artist, is widely known for his classic hits that made their way into the mainstream. Despite the $75,000 loss he faced in a plagiarism lawsuit for “Folsom Prison Blues,” Cash’s music continues to endure, including his signature song “Ring of Fire,” which has a remarkable backstory. Although “A Boy Named Sue” and “Ring of Fire” differ in many ways, Cash did not write either song.


Johnny Cash didn’t receive a writing credit for “Ring of Fire”

Since it was composed by June Carter and Merle Kilgore, who often wrote together in Nashville, according to the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP). Cash’s recording of the song in March 1963 was not the first as it was previously performed by Anita Carter in 1962 with the title “(Love’s) Ring of Fire,” which didn’t chart. However, the song’s captivating story revolves around the unspoken romantic feelings between Cash and Carter.

The names of Carter and Kilgore as the writers of “Ring of Fire” are permanent in the ASCAP directory, according to a book by Alan Light. Carter had a convincing story about how she wrote the song based on an underlined passage in a book. This lyric hit home for Carter, who was married but attracted to Cash. However, Cash threw Carter’s story into question, stating that he dreamed the song with the addition of Mexican horns, which set the main hook of his recording.


Cash claimed he wrote the song during a fishing trip

Despite Johnny Cash not receiving a songwriting credit for “Ring of Fire,” he claimed to have written the song with Merle Kilgore during a fishing trip that was filled with drugs and alcohol. This story was also backed up by Cash’s friend Curly Lewis and his first wife, Vivian Liberto.

“To this day, it confounds me to hear the elaborate details June told of writing that song for Johnny,” as per Light’s book, Liberto noted in her memoir. “She didn’t write that song any more than I did.”

The history of “Ring of Fire” appears to be as complex as some of Cash’s darker songs. It is unclear if Cash wrote the song while intoxicated and then gave it to Carter, only for her to give it back. However, it is official that Carter claimed she saw the phrase “Love is like a burning ring of fire” in one of her uncle’s books, and that story appears in the ASCAP library.

There are two indisputable facts: Cash and Carter shared a long-lasting mutual attraction, and “Ring of Fire” was one of Cash’s most successful songs.