Late in his career, Johnny Cash picked up a reputation for being as somber and serious as his favorite outfits. But he wasn’t exactly Cormac McCarthy: From his earliest days as a writer, he had a sideline in novelty songs and parodies — some of them incredibly goofy. And while a few of his silliest tracks are long out of print (“Chicken in Black,” anyone?), others were among his biggest hits, or staples of his live shows. Here are 10 moments that prove the Man in Black had a wicked sense of humor. [Watch the video that accompanies this story.]
“A Boy Named Sue”
The Setup: This tale of an embittered tough guy seeking revenge on the absent father who saddled him with a girl's name had just come to Cash from its writer, Shel Silverstein yes, the When the Sidewalk Ends author when he played San Quentin State Prison in 1969. (Cash later claimed that he'd never performed it in public before.) It went over like gangbusters with the inmates, and that off-the-cuff live recording became Cash's biggest pop hit.
The Punchline: The narrator's revelation of what he hopes to name his own son is the kicker, but the biggest laugh line comes when Cash barks "MY NAME IS SUE! HOW DO YOU DO! NOW YOU'RE GONNA DIE!"
“Luther Played the Boogie”
The Setup: Cash was already a cut-up in his earliest days, and already mythologizing himself and his band. This wry tribute to his longtime guitarist Luther Perkins was cut at the same 1955 session as "Folsom Prison Blues," and became a country hit when it was finally released in 1959.
The Punchline: The chorus of the song requires Cash to sing "Luther played the boogie-woogie" eight times in a row without taking a breath. You try doing that.
“One Piece at a Time”
The Setup: Cash's final No. 1 country hit, released in 1976, was a novelty number written by Wayne Kemp, concerning an auto worker who commits the slowest-ever car theft with the help of an oversized lunchbox. Nearly every line is a gag, and Cash milks them for all they're worth check his pronunciation of "a-dapter kit."
The Punchline: It takes so long for Cash to detail the pedigree of his "psychobilly Cadillac" that the recording fades out before he's done.
“25 Minutes to Go”
The Setup: Another Shel Silverstein original, "25 Minutes to Go" burlesques the condemned-man ballads that were Cash's bread and butter, counting down the minutes to a hanging line by line, and speeding up as it proceeds. It was, unsurprisingly, a big hit at Cash's prison shows.
The Punchline: The truncated final line ("here I gooooooo!") is a fitting conclusion, but Silverstein also gets points for letting minutes of story time elapse during the instrumental breaks.
The Setup: When Cash appeared on Sesame Street in 1974, the show's composer Jeff Moss wrote him this song to perform with Oscar the Grouch, concerning a wicked outlaw whose crimes are never quite enumerated, although Cash darkly hints that Nasty Dan never even bathed. (Cash subsequently made it the lead-off track of his 1975 children's album, and a year later Claude Franois had a huge hit with it in France, as "Sale Bonhomme.")
The Punchline: Nasty Dan eventually gets his comeuppance, or something like it, by marrying a "nasty girl" and settling into domestic bliss.
“Flushed from the Bathroom of Your Heart”
The Setup: Cash's 1968 concerts at California's Folsom State Prison signaled his commercial renaissance, but some of the material he performed there was anything but radio-friendly, including this goofy, borderline scatological string of over-the-top country heartbreak metaphors.
The Punchline: It's basically all punchline second cousin to the Bonzo Dog Band's "Canyons of Your Mind." But the Folsom prisoners (or, perhaps, their overdubbed stand-ins) crack up when Cash emphasizes the line "up the elevator of your future I've been shafted."
“A Backstage Pass”
The Setup: 1990's Boom Chicka Boom opened with this faux-live recording of a Cash original about what goes on behind the scenes at a Willie Nelson concert, packed with Nashville in-jokes and hit-and-run portraits of country wannabes. Some of its gags haven't aged terribly well: "There was leather and lace and every minority race"? Oof.
The Punchline: The chorus's litany of "wackos and weirdos and dingbats and dodoes" is topped off by the strangest thing of all: "David Allan Coe."
“Long Legged Guitar Pickin’ Man”
The Setup: Cash and June Carter they were still just a cute couple, not yet married recorded the Carryin' On album of duets in 1967. It features this adorable country-rock flirtation, on which the two of them trade snaps as if they're poking each other in the shoulder.
The Punchline: "I stole the Hope Diamond hopin' I could shut your mouth," drawls Cash, and Carter retorts by asking how she's going to be able to show it off.
“The One on the Right Is on the Left”
The Setup: Cash's 1966 album Everybody Loves a Nut was an all-comedy special, with cover art by MAD magazine's Jack Davis. Its biggest hit single was this story-song about a folk revival group that's done in by its members' political differences, featuring daffy, prolix lyrics written by Nashville producer Jack Clement.
The Punchline: "The guy in the rear" is the butt of every verse's joke but in 1966, a phrase beginning "burned his drrrr..." tended to end "draft card," rather than "driver's license."
The Setup: Another parody of condemned-man ballads this one concerning an "unruly kid" who's facing the gallows for a murder he didn't commit, since he was robbing a train at the time "Joe Bean" first came to light on Dolan Ellis's 1962 album Almost Authentic Folk Songs.
The Punchline: When Joe's mother asks the governor for a reprieve, he doesn't quite deliver what she asks for, but he offers the faintest possible consolation: singing Joe "Happy Birthday."