Johnny Cash had a hit with "Ring of Fire" -- a song co-written by his wife, June Carter, and Merle Kilgore -- in the summer of 1964. By that point, he had already become a country super star, but the early '60s had been a little bit of a fallow period for Cash. The Top Ten hits stopped flowing steadily in the spring of 1960, and while he was still charting, he hadn't had a huge smash in a few years. "Ring of Fire" changed all that. Spending seven weeks at number one and reaching the pop Top 20, the single ushered in the second great wave of hit singles from Cash. More importantly, it cemented the image of Johnny Cash, "the Man in Black" -- not necessarily an outlaw, but certainly an outsider.
In light of that, the mariachi horns that grace the song seem a little incongruous, but even while those horns sound a little dated, the song still sounds tough, particularly because the chorus about "I fell down in a burning ring of fire" sounds so ominous. It's easy to forget that the "Ring of Fire" is just a metaphor for falling in love because a "Ring of Fire" sounds so intimidating and dangerous. Falling into a "Ring of Fire" is something an outlaw would do, or at least it sounded that way, so the song gave Cash a cool, outsider reputation. That's the reason why rockers -- from surf god Dick Dale and rockabilly cat Sleepy LaBeef to post-punkers Blondie and Social Distortion and old-school bad boy Eric Burdon -- chose to cover this song when they wanted to pay tribute to Johnny Cash. And, while certain lyrics are a little corny, it was such a strong song that it sounded good in this myriad of covers. Throughout it all, Cash's original stood strong, because it was a forceful blend of his image and musical attitude. Even though those mariachi horns sound a little silly at times.