The Story Behind Johnny Cash’s Debut 1955 Singles “Hey Porter” and “Cry! Cry! Cry!”

Shortly after enlisting in the U.S. Air Force in 1950, Johnny Cash met his first wife Vivian Liberto during basic training before being stationed in Germany where he bought his first guitar for five dollars and started the band Landsberg Barbarians—named after their base in Bavaria, Germany.

When Cash received an honorable discharge in 1954, he briefly moved back to San Antonio, Texas and married Liberto, before relocating to Memphis, Tennessee. There, Cash sold appliances while studying to be a radio announcer. By night, Cash was playing with two mechanics he met in Memphis, guitarist Luther Perkins and bassist Marshall Grant, also known as the Tennessee Two—and later the Tennessee Three with drummer W.S. Holland as Cash’s backup band.

The trio would play at movie theaters and other local spots around Memphis. Their performances also crafted the earliest rumblings of Cash’s signature train chugging “boom-chicka-boom” sound with Grant smacking an upright bass and Perkins laying the heel of his hand on the strings on his Fender Telecaster.

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“We started going to each other’s house at night and playing music just for the fun of it,” said Cash of playing with the Tennessee Two. “And at one point, we were invited to play at a church, and it felt good, so we said, ‘Let’s do some more shows.'” 

Country singer Johnny Cash performs on the WSM Grand Ole Opry tour with his band the Tennessee Two which included bassist Marshall Grant and guitarist Luther Perkins in circa 1956. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

At the time, Cash was also working up the nerve to visit Sun Records and audition for founder Sam Phillips. Before making his way to Sun, Cash tried to call Phillips but was turned down each time. “One day, I just decided that I’m ready to go,” remembered Cash in 1997. “I went down [to Sun Records] with my guitar and sat on the front steps of his recording studio and met him (Phillips) when he came in. I said, ‘I’m Johnny Cash. I’m the one that’s been calling and if you’d listen to me, I believe you’ll be glad you did.’”

Cash added, “That was a good lesson for me, you know, to believe in myself.”

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When he finally got a spot to audition he performed mostly gospel songs for Phillip, who allegedly told Cash to “go home and sin, then come back with a song I can sell.”

He went back to Phillips and delivered new songs showcasing the earliest rendering of his signature sound and made his first recordings at Sun with “Hey Porter” and “Cry! Cry! Cry!” Both songs were released in 1955 as Cash’s first singles.

“Hey Porter”

Written by Cash, “Hey Porter,” recounted his train ride back home to Tennessee as a young man and a conversation with one of the employees on board

Hey porter, hey porter
Please get my bags for me
I need nobody to tell me now
That we’re in Tennessee
Go tell that engineer to make
That lonesome whistle scream.

Cash’s fascination with trains spilled over into two locomotive-themed albums in the 1960s—Ride This Train in 1960 and his 1962 compilation All Aboard the Blue Train with Johnny Cash—and through the final song he ever recorded “Like the 309.”

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“Hey Porter” was covered by Hank Williams Jr. on his 1970 album Singing My Songs (Johnny Cash), and by Ry Cooder on his 1972 release Into the Purple Valley. Throughout the years, Cash also re-recorded “Hey Porter,” including his duet with Marty Stuart in 1982. He also added his vocals to a cover version of the song on the 1975 Earl Scruggs Revue album Anniversary Special.

“Cry! Cry! Cry! “

Of the first two singles, “Cry! Cry! Cry!” made it onto Cash’s 1957 debut Johnny Cash with His Hot and Blue Guitar! “He [Phillips] responded most to a song of mine called ‘Hey Porter,’ which was on the first record, but he asked me to go write a love song or maybe a bitter weeper,” said Cash. “So I wrote a song called ‘Cry! Cry! Cry!’ went back in and recorded that for the other side of the record.”

“Cry! Cry! Cry” was hardly a heartfelt ballad but told the story of the end of a relationship.

Everybody knows where you go when the sun goes down
I think you only live to see the lights of town
I wasted my time when I would try, try, try
When the lights have lost their glow you’re gonna cry, cry, cry

When originally released in 1955, “Cry! Cry! Cry” went to No. 14 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart.

Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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