August 10, 2008
Written by Kris Kristofferson
On a 1971 episode of his television show Johnny Cash and Friends, the Man in Black defied the show’s executives by staying true to the lyric of one of his signature songs rather than changing it to fit the family audience. When he reached the pinnacle moment, he reached back and sang about a Sunday morning spent “wishing, Lord, that I was stoned”. This open defiance by Cash stands in sharp contrast to the song he was singing, one that is country music‘s saddest and sorriest song about drinking and depression.
A portrayal of a hungover, heartbroken man, “Sunday Morning Coming Down” was written by a then-unknown Columbia Records janitor named Kris Kristofferson. His time living in a slum tenement for $25/month sparked an idea, and he spilled out his sadness one line at a time. The angst-ridden character in the song drinks beer for breakfast (and dessert), walks and talks with no true direction and sees the early hours of a Sunday as the most lonesome time of all. Kristofferson said, “I think Sunday was the choice because the bars were closed in the morning and nobody was at work, so if you were alone, it was the most alone time.”
Although Ray Stevens had a minor hit with the mourning ballad in 1969, it was Cash who elevated it to its deserved status, recording the song after striking up a friendship with the young janitor. Cash confessed to the listener with great depth and despair, giving his account of the solitude and struggle of a troubled man. He tells of all the simple pleasures of life, the fried chicken, the Sunday school and the families spending time together, all while he is alone to go through the motions. He admits that “There’s nothing sure of dying half as lonesome as a sound/On the sleeping city sidewalk Sunday morning coming down” with a resigned, yet still restless tone.
The tormented character struck a chord with fans and the country music establishment. Not only would “Sunday Morning Coming Down” reach #1 for 2 weeks in the fall of 1970, the Country Music Association would acknowledge it as Song of the Year. While a number of country and rock artists (such as Shawn Mullins, Bobby Osborne and the Mother Hips), Johnny Cash gave the song true definition and simple, stunning detail. It remains the pinnacle of the Cash-Kristofferson partnership, and offers the listener a truthful account of heartache and hardship.
“Sunday Morning Coming Down” is the latest in a series of articles showcasing Classic Country Singles. You can read previous entries at the Classic Country Singles page.