The Man in Black charted one of his biggest hits three years after his passing.
As we celebrate what would have been Johnny Cash’s 91th birthday today, we’re viewing for the zillionth time the amazing music video for his powerful rendition of the classic American folk song “God's Gonna Cut You Down” — a version so distinctive that it can be instantly identified by the hammer-pounding industrial sound of its clap-and-stomp intro, and so potent that it has been sampled in everything from movie soundtracks (most recently in the trailer for Taylor Sheridan’s Those Who Wish Me Dead) to TV ads for Jeep Grand Cherokees.
Cash's version was originally recorded in 2003 for American V: A Hundred Highways — which was not released until three years after his death, and wound up being his first No. 1 album in 37 years. (Fun fact: The album’s title is derived from one of Cash’s favorite Rod McKuen songs, “Love’s Been Good to Me.”) For the video, credited as the brainchild of Justin Timberlake, director Tony Kaye (American History X) assembled a diverse array of Cash friends and admirers that included everyone from Kris Kristofferson to Kayne West, Kid Rock to Sheryl Crow, Brian Wilson to Owen Wilson. And many more.
Of course, if we’re talking about powerful Johnny Cash videos, we have to acknowledge his very best — indeed, one of the greatest music videos of all time: From his album The Man Comes Around, “Hurt.” It started out as a song written by Trent Reznor and recorded with his group Nine Inch Nails. But after seeing the video directed by Mark Romanek (One Hour Photo), Reznor reacted thusly: “Wow. I just lost my girlfriend, because that song isn't mine anymore.” Or as Bono later observed: “Trent Reznor was born to write that song, but Johnny Cash was born to sing it, and Mark Romanek was born to film it.”
Here is the story behind the video. And here is the video — which, appropriately enough, is the very last thing you see as you exit the Johnny Cash Museum in Nashville.
One more: Arguably the greatest Johnny Cash song that Cash never recorded. In 2018, Legacy Recordings, a division of Sony Music Entertainment, released Johnny Cash: Forever Words, an ambitious compilation of songs created from Cash’s heretofore unknown poetry, lyrics, and letters, and set to music by an outstanding array of contemporary artists. Rosanne Cash, Johnny’s eldest daughter, contributed what indisputably is the album’s most moving track, “The Walking Wounded,” and filmed an accompanying video with director David McClister. The Man in Black would have been proud.