Thirty-three years ago, Rosanne Cash recorded her rendition of “Tennessee Flat Top Box.”
It was released in 1987 as the third single off her highly successful album King’s Record Shop, and it sailed to the top spot of Billboard Hot Country songs and Canadian RPM Country Tracks, making it the third of four consecutive No. 1 country hits from that album.
But did you know “Tennessee Flat Top Box” was written and originally recorded by someone Rosanne knew very well?
The Man Behind The Song
“Tennessee Flat Top Box” was written by none other than Rosanne Cash’s country legend father, Johnny Cash. The song tells the tale of a little dark-haired boy who aspires to be a country singer.
He starts his career at a local cabaret found in South Texas border town. Eventually, he became very popular, especially to the girls who would secretly sneak out from home and would even pawn jewelry just to make money and take the trip to hear him play.
“Well, he couldn’t ride or wrangle, and he never cared to make a dime. But give him his guitar, and he’d be happy all the time. And all the girls from nine to ninety, were snapping fingers, tapping toes, and begging him: “Don’t stop.” And hypnotized and fascinated, by the little dark-haired boy who played the Tennessee flat top box,” the song goes.
However, one day, the boy disappeared from the local scene. Several years later, some already forgot about him, but never the girls. They dream about him and would even hang around the cabaret he used to play. At the end of the song, it was revealed that the boy resurfaced on the Hit Parade, a weekly listing of the current best selling pop records.
The elder Cash released “Tennessee Flat Top Box” as a single in 1961, and it peaked at No. 11 on Billboard Hot Country songs. Over two decades later, Rosanne recorded the song as suggested by her then-husband, fellow country singer Rodney Crowell. However, at that time, Rosanne had no idea of the song’s origins – she just assumed it was from the public domain.
But Rosanne may have recognized the parallels to her father’s life in the song and had been exposed to it her entire life. “It was like singing a lullaby that you’d heard through your childhood,” Rosanne later said.
With the song’s success, Johnny Cash responded by writing his daughter a letter and taking a space in Billboard to tell not just Rosanne, but also the entire world, how proud of a father he is. “I think you always loved me almost as much as I loved you if that’s possible. But you had your own dreams, your own goals, your own hopes, and cares … Your success with ‘Tennessee Flat Top Box’ is one of my greatest fulfillments.”
Although Rosanne admitted that her relationship with her father was rocky and tenuous at times, the two performed “Tennessee Flat Top Box” together on a few occasions. This includes the invitation-only launch for Mother Maybelle’s Cookbook, compiled by June Carter Cash in 1989. The rare footage of the father-daughter performance is a sweet document of the love they definitely had for one another.
Following the country legend’s death in 2003, Rosanne also performed the song at The Johnny Cash Memorial Tribute held at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium.
You can listen to “Tennessee Flat Top Box” in the video below.
Johnny Cash, rosanne cash