Revealing The True Story Behind Johnny Cash’s Iconic Hit, ‘Ring of Fire’

The song went on to become one of the biggest hits of Cash’s career.

By

Madeleine O’Connell

| Posted on

January 25, 2024

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Johnny Cash; Photo Courtesy Johnny Cash Official Facebook

Johnny Cash released one of the greatest hits of his career, “Ring Of Fire,” in 1963. It topped the country chart for seven weeks and quickly became a popular cover among artists in many different genres spanning country to folk and even rock. Despite the success he had with the song, Cash was not the first one to record it. 

Who Wrote “Ring Of Fire?”

“Ring Of Fire” was born in the early ‘60s from the creative work of songwriters Merle Kilgore and June Carter, before she tied the knot with Johnny Cash. According to an excerpt from a GRAMMY Foundation Living History interview with Kilgore, he and Carter were writing songs for her sister Anita Carter’s new folk album at the time and eventually, they ran out of ideas for what to write next. 

There are a few theories surrounding where the inspiration for “Ring of Fire” came from, but in his interview, Kilgore explained that Carter pulled the idea from an old letter sent to her by a friend who had just gotten a divorce. “He said, ‘Listen to this, love is like a burning ring of fire. I can’t stand it anymore and I’ll never fall in love again.’ She said, ‘There’s something in that title, don’t you think?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I really think we should work on that.’”

Ring of Fire; The Best Of Johnny Cash
Ring of Fire; The Best Of Johnny Cash

He went on to say that they left that writing session unfinished, but still determined to make something out of the poetic line. Two hours after arriving home, Kilgore recalled being asked to come back because they had a last-minute request for one more song to finalize the album.

“I told ’em that we almost had ‘Ring of Fire’ finished. I rushed back over there, and I started writing a verse. When I got there, she had tightened up the first, we got it all together and we took it down and sung it live to Anita and the musicians. Bang, it was recorded right then. It was so beautiful the way she did it. It was slow and it just rolled with the folk guitar,” he recalled. 

Anita Carter Originally Recorded The Track

Anita Carter’s recording of the song which was then titled “(Love’s) Ring of Fire,” was delivered as a beautifully airy folk song. After hearing her version, Cash was said to have had a dream in which he envisioned the song with the addition of Mexican trumpets and his own baritone voice. He let Anita have her moment with the tune, but on March 25, 1963, Cash brought his band, The Tennessee Two, into the studio to record his version of “Ring of Fire” with producers Don Law and Frank Jones.

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“He said, ‘I’m going to record that song of Anita’s record don’t hit,’” Kilgore recalled. “A couple months later, he called me and he said, ‘alright, Kilgore, come on in. I’ve got those trumpets ready.’ So I walked in the studio and those trumpets started playing the ‘Ring of Fire.’ Everybody knew it was an instant hit.”

Cash’s Version Appeared On His 1963 Album

The song appeared as the title track to the “Folsom Prison Blues” singer’s 1963 album, Ring of Fire: The Best of Johnny Cash. His decision to try his hand at the tune paid off because not only did it spawn radio success, but by 1964 it had become the biggest hits of his career. 

It’s most commonly believed that the song finds Cash singing about the power of love between two fateful people whose passion for one another intensifies like burning flames.

“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,” he delivers on the chorus.

I Walked the Line: My Life with Johnny
I Walked the Line: My Life with Johnny

His First Wife Challenged The Original Narrative

However, when Cash’s first wife, Vivian Liberto released her memoir, I Walked The Line, in 2007, the true writer behind “Ring of Fire” was questioned. It’s known that Vivian wasn’t a big fan of Cash’s touring lifestyle and even feared that he was pursuing Carter behind her back so in her book, she claims that Cash was responsible for penning the song with Kilgore and allowed Carter to say she wrote it.

This passage read, “One day in early 1963, while gardening in the yard, Johnny told me about a song he had just written with Merle Kilgore and Curly while out fishing on Lake Casitas. ‘I’m gonna give June half credit on a song I just wrote,’ Johnny said. ‘It’s called “Ring of Fire.”‘ ‘Why?’ I asked, wiping dirt from my hands. The mere mention of her name annoyed me. I was sick of hearing about her. ‘She needs the money,’ he said, avoiding my stare. ‘And I feel sorry for her.’ 

Vivian also challenged the meaning of the story, saying its focus was on “a certain private female body part” instead of the heartfelt connection between two lovers. 

To this day, it confounds me to hear the elaborate details June told of writing that song for Johnny. She didn’t write that song any more than I did,” she continued “The truth is, Johnny wrote that song, while pilled up and drunk, about a certain private female body part. All those years of her claiming she wrote it herself, and she probably never knew what the song was really about.”

June Carter Cash, Johnny Cash; Photo via June Carter Cash Facebook
June Carter Cash, Johnny Cash; Photo via June Carter Cash Facebook

Johnny Cash eventually divorced Vivian and shortly after tied the knot with June Carter on March 1, 1968, in Franklin, KY. They stayed married for 35 years before Carter passed away in 2003, and Cash died just four months later. 

“Ring Of Fire” Has Been Covered By Many Artists

No matter who actually wrote “Ring of Fire” or what it was about, there’s no doubting the fact that it went on to become one of the greatest songs of all time. In addition to Anita and Cash’s versions, many other artists have and continue to release their own covers, including country icons like Alan Jackson and rock bands like Blondie and Social Distortion.

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Madeleine O’Connell graduated from North Central College with a bachelors degree in Journalism and Broadcast Communications before deciding to pursue her studies further at DePaul University. There, she earned her masters degree in Digital Communication & Media Arts. O’Connell served as a freelance writer for over two years while also interning with the Academy of Country Music, SiriusXM and Circle Media and assisting with Amazon Music’s Country Heat Weekly podcast. In addition to Country Now, she has been published in American Songwriter, Music Mayhem, and Holler.Country. Madeleine O’Connell is a member of the Country Music Association and the Academy of Country Music.