Johnny Cash, “Sunday Morning Coming Down”

Sunday Morning Coming Down
Johnny Cash
1970

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.

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7 Comments

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7 Responses to Johnny Cash, “Sunday Morning Coming Down”

  1. LeeannNo Gravatar

    The story that is associated with this song is one of my favorites. The fact that Johnny didn’t bow to the pressures to change the lyric to Kristofferson’s song is a testament to Cash’s integrity and strength. He knew that “stoned” was far more poignant than “home.” He knew the importance of a lyric and the intended emotion that the writer meant by choosing it.

    As far as the song, it’s one of the best. Although I haven’t been there to that extreme, it’s easy to imagine how pangs of feeling alone could expand to something so palpable as this song so clearly conveys.

  2. Paul W DennisNo Gravatar

    I’m a big Johnny Cash fan but I would not regard this as one of his better singles, nor do I regard it as one of Kristofferson’s best songs. It was a good (but over-orchestrated) single and it was a good, but not great, song. I agree that substituting “home” for “stoned” would change the meaning of the song but not necessarily make it less poignant

    I think the best version of the song was recorded by Sean Mullins, a generally unheralded singer

  3. I haven’t heard the Mullins version, but I’m sure it has to be better than Gretchen Wilson’s trainwreck of a cover.

    This is one of my favorite Cash singles, and a song that I connect to childhood road trips. My dad loved this song, so it was heavily featured on mix tapes.

  4. BlakeNo Gravatar

    I have heard the Mullins version, and I consider it to be very good. A couple of the other versions are less appealing.

    I think the added context/story makes this an essential country song. I would also admit that I prefer a number of other Cash (and Kristofferson, for that matter) songs, but this still is an important song in the genre’s history, though there are others more important. The song met the moment, if you will.

  5. Leeann WardNo Gravatar

    While it would probably be right toward the top of my own personal list of Cash songs, I recognize that it might not be everyone’s favorite Cash song.

    I Think “stoned” adds some zing that “home” would lack.

    I haven’t heard Shawn Mullins’ version. Is he that guy who sings “Rockabye”? If so, I’m at least intrigued, though not convinced that his version would be better than Cash’s. I’ll go try to find a clip though.

  6. RickNo Gravatar

    My family watched “The Johnny Cash Show” religiously and along with “The Glen Campbell Show” they were among the best weekly musical variety shows ever aired. (The Smothers Brothers Show and Sonny & Cher Show get honorable mention). I remember the night Johhny sang this song as it was so powerful and the night he introduced a barefoot and gorgeous young Linda Ronstadt. It was only later I heard about the station trying to censor the word “stoned”. They should have known better than to mess with the man in black…..

  7. TomNo Gravatar

    having another beer for dessert sounds like a slightly dated line when used casually in the company of friends, later in the day. hearing it from somebody talking to himself on a sunday morning paints as stark a picture of loneliness and “nowhere-to-go feeling” as it gets.

    a song that was brilliantly written and brought to life by two giants.