Johnny Cash was on a touring break when he picked up an article titled "Johnny Cash Has the Big River Blues in His Voice." Soon after, he wrote a lovelorn country tune about a man who is so smitten by a woman and her irresistible Southern drawl that he pursues her down the Mississippi River - and misses her at every turn. Cash is backed by Luther Perkins on guitar, who delivers an electrifying solo, and Marshall Grant on bass. The single peaked at #4 on the country chart.
Cash had a much different sound in mind for the tune before Sun Records founder Sam Phillips got a hold of it. "When I wrote 'Big River,' I wrote it [to be sung] real slow, not up-tempo as I did it on record," he explained in a 1988 interview with biographer Steve Turner. "There was a guitar player named Roy Nichols, who later worked with Merle Haggard, and he used to play that song with me, and he played some really black blues on it. It sounded like a real blues song. Sam Phillips wanted it upbeat, and he made it sound like a rockabilly song."
Cash uses poetic imagery to express his heartache, opening the song with the verse "I taught the weeping willow how to cry, and I showed the clouds how to cover up a clear blue sky." The song made a big impression on his daughter Rosanne Cash, who recorded it in 1980 for the album Right or Wrong. She said:
"I think my dad's 'Big River' is one of the most eloquent pieces of American poetry ever written. It is so layered and cinematic. It's a narrative that starts at the top of the Mississippi River, in St Paul, Minnesota, and ends in New Orleans. It was written about a time when travel was still full of surprises, when it was an exotic trip to go from St Paul to Memphis or New Orleans. He uses alliteration in a thrilling way.
The first line of the last verse always gives me a thrill. It is positively Shakespearean. I like knowing my dad was so moved by the river, the South, the Delta and the music that arose from that area.
It inspires me he had such an intuitive and refined sense of narrative and language, that he created a cinematic landscape, a testosterone-fueled chase of a woman down the river, and that he wrote such a driving back beat to hold it together. This is a song that could never be written today, and so it is also a piece of American history and part of the legacy of my family and my country."
A demo recording included an extra verse that was omitted from the single, but was sometimes included in live performances. The Outlaw Country supergroup The Highwaymen, of which Cash was a member, recorded this in 1985 with each member taking turns singing a verse. Waylon Jennings sang the missing piece:
Well, I pulled into Natchez, next day down the river
But there wasn't much there to make the rounders stay very long.
When I left it was rainin' so nobody saw me cry.
Big river, why she doin' me this way?
Cash and Jennings joined Trick Pony on a cover for the country band's debut album in 2001.
When Tom Petty was honored at the 2017 MusiCares gala
, he said, "You want to be a songwriter? Listen to 'Big River' about 60 times, and you'll write something."
Bob Dylan also thought the tune was an exceptional piece of songwriting. "There are so many ways you can go at something in a song," he said. "One thing is to give life to inanimate objects. Johnny Cash is good at that. He's got the line that goes, 'A freighter said, 'She's been here, but she's gone, boy, she's gone.' That's great. That's high art. If you do that once in a song, you usually turn it on its head right then and there."
The country folk duo Secret Sisters released this as a single in 2010, backed by Jack White on guitar.
This was used on the TV show NCIS in the 2007 episode "Requiem."