'Ring Of Fire' By Johnny Cash: Song Meaning, Stories, Lyrics

Music | April 19, 2020

THE JOHNNY CASH SHOW - Shoot Date: March 17, 1969. (Photo by Walt Disney Television via Getty Images Photo Archives/Walt Disney Television via Getty Images)

Is "Ring Of Fire" Johnny Cash's signature song? When that horn hook comes in, it's hard to argue against it. The song's meaning and lyrics aren't inherently Cash -- it's not about prison (like "Folsom Prison Blues") or fighting (like "A Boy Named Sue") or overindulgence (like "Sunday Morning Coming Down"). It's a song about love, from word one: "Love is a burning thing." Here's the story of this catchy, danceable ode to the exquisite agony of love, plus some facts and trivia you might not know.

'Ring Of Fire' Ranks As One Of The Greatest Songs Ever

Source: (Wide Open Country)

Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” was ranked at #17 in Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” and #4 in CMT’s “100 Greatest Songs of Country Music.” After becoming a hit for Johnny Cash, many other musicians covered the song, including Olivia Newton John, Elvis Costello and Madonna. Frank Zappa even released a reggae version of the song.

Ring of Fire may have been Johnny Cash’s biggest hit, but he did not write it and the song is credited to Merle Kilgore and his second wife, June Carter Cash. However, Vivian Cash, Johnny Cash’s ex-wife claimed in her memoir that he did. Vivian Cash stated in her memoir, I Walked the Line that Cash wrote the song while he was drunk. According Vivian Cash, he wrote the song about female body parts. She also claimed that he only credited the song to June because she needed the money. However, there is nothing to support her claim and it may in fact have arisen from her anger at June Carter Cash after the failure of Vivian’s marriage to Cash. The book was published after Johnny Cash’s death, so he was unable to protest this part of her story.

Growing Up In Poverty

With his family. Source: (TimeToast).

Cash was born on February 26, 1932, in Kingsland, Arkansas. He was one of seven children born to a sharecropping family, who lived in a five-room house. He spent much of his time working in the fields along with his family, where they passed the time singing folk songs and hymns. Cash started writing songs when he was 12, and his mother arranged for him to take singing lessons. However, he only took three lessons and his instructor told him to maintain his natural singing voice. Throughout his career, his music was influenced by his early experiences working on the farm, as well as religion, an influence which began with his mother, who was a member of the Pentecostal Church of God.

The Beginning Of A Career And The End Of A Marriage

With Vivian Cash and his children. Source: (Rocks Off Mag).

The summer after he graduated from high school, he joined the Air Force. While he was training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio Texas, he met his future wife, Vivian Liberto. After he was discharged from the Air Force in July, 1954, he married Liberto, and the couple settled in Memphis, Tennessee. While there, he worked as an appliance salesman and continued to play music, teaming up with some mechanics who were also musicians. While in Memphis, he signed with Sun Records, and later signed with Columbia.

By the 1960s, as Cash’s music career was blossoming, he moved his family to California. By this point he was on the road performing nearly 300 nights a year, often accompanied by June Carter. By this point, drugs and alcohol had begun to take a toll, and Vivian Cash was left to raise their daughters. By 1966, Vivian had filed for divorce. His addiction to drugs and alcohol was killing him, but June Carter Cash helped to turn his life around. June Carter Cash helped him to get the drug addiction treatment that he needed and the two were married in 1968.

Cash Wasn't The First To Sing It

Anita Carter, who first recorded the song. Source: (Moonshine Radio)

While Vivian’s book was not unkind to Johnny, she was not so kind to his second wife. Among her claims, Vivian’s dubious claim that June did not write “Ring of Fire,” lacks any substantial support; in fact there is significant evidence to the contrary, particularly the fact that Johnny Cash was not the first to record the song. She first gave the song to her sister, Anita Carter. She released it as “(Love’s) Ring of Fire. Johnny Cash reportedly liked the song and told Anita he would give her version six months to find commercial success. Anita’s version did not have the sort of reception that Cash had with his version, which he recorded with the help of Don Law and Frank Jones, the Columbia producers.

The Johnny Cash Version

Source: (Biography.com)

Cash’s recording was quite different from Anita Carter’s. According to Cash, for his version, he recorded the mariachi style trumpets at the beginning of his version as an attempt to depart from the sound of his earlier recordings. He also claimed that his inspiration for the sound came from a dream where the horn part played over the song itself. Additionally, when Cash sang the song with his deep baritone voice, the song itself took on a darker, more violent turn.

The Lyrics

Johnny Cash with June Carter Cash. Source: (Classic Country Music)

Love is a burning thing

And it makes a fiery ring

Bound by wild desire

I fell into a ring of fire

I fell into a burning ring of fire

I went down, down, down and the flames went higher

And it burns, burns, burns

The ring of fire, the ring of fire

I fell into a burning ring of fire

I went down, down, down and the flames went higher

And it burns, burns, burns

The ring of fire, the ring of fire

The taste of love is sweet

When hearts like ours meet

I fell for you like a child

Oh, but the fire went wild

I fell into a burning ring of fire

I went down, down, down and the flames went higher

And it burns, burns, burns

The ring of fire, the ring of fire

What Does The Song Mean?

With June Carter Cash. Source: (Morrison Hotel Gallery)

Some sources claim that June was inspired after she saw “love is like a burning ring of fire” underlined in her uncle A.P. Carter’s book of Elizabethan poetry. She then worked with Merle Kilgore, building off the line to compose the song, reportedly inspired by her feelings for Johnny Cash. According to June Carter Cash, when she first fell in love with Cash, it was scary because he was a bit wild, seriously using drugs, and she was not quite sure what he was going to do. Additionally, when she wrote the song, both she and Cash were married. She has also said that she wrote the song while driving around, worried about Cash. As she wrote, “There is no way to be in that kind of hell, no way to extinguish a flame that burns, burns, burns.”

No, It Is Not About Preparation H

Source: (Wikipedia).

In 2004, a company wanted to use the song to promote hemorrhoid-relief products, and Merle Kilgore, the cowriter of the song liked the idea and had even joked during concerts that the song was dedicated to the makers of Preparation H, but Rosanne Cash, Johnny Cash’s daughter, was not game. As she said “The song is about the transformative power of love and that’s what it has always meant to me and that’s what it will always mean to the Cash children.”

Tags: Johnny Cash | Ring Of Fire | Song Meanings, Lyrics, And Facts

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Cyn Felthousen-Post


Cyn loves history, music, Irish dancing, college football and nature. Social media is also her thing, keeping up with trends and celebrities with positive news. She can be found outside walking or hiking with her son when she's not working. Carpe diem is her fave quote, get out there and seize the day!