The song was recorded on March 25, 1963, and became one of the biggest hits of Cash's career, staying at number one on the country chart for seven weeks. It was certified Gold on January 21, 2010, by the RIAA and has also sold over 1.2 million digital downloads.
Although "Ring of Fire" sounds ominous, the term refers to falling in love – which is what June Carter was experiencing with Johnny Cash at the time. Some sources claim that Carter had seen the phrase "Love is like a burning ring of fire," underlined in one of her uncle A. P. Carter's Elizabethan books of poetry. She worked with Kilgore on writing a song inspired by this phrase as she had seen her uncle do in the past. She had written: "There is no way to be in that kind of hell, no way to extinguish a flame that burns, burns, burns".
Cash's first wife, Vivian Liberto, offered a different conception of "Ring of Fire" in her book I Walked the Line. She contended that June Carter Cash was not a co-writer of the song: "To this day, it confounds me to hear the elaborate details June told of writing that song for Johnny. She didn't write that song any more than I did. The truth is, Johnny wrote that song, while pilled up and drunk, about a certain private female body part. All those years of her claiming she wrote it herself, and she probably never knew what the song was really about." Liberto claimed that Cash decided to give Carter co-writer status because "She needs the money".
The song was originally recorded by June's sister, Anita Carter, on her Mercury Records album Folk Songs Old and New (1963) as "(Love's) Ring of Fire". Mercury released Anita's version as a single and it was a featured "pick hit" in Billboard magazine.
After hearing Anita's version, Cash claimed he had a dream where he heard the song accompanied by "Mexican horns". Cash stated, "I'll give you about five or six more months, and if you don't hit with it, I'm gonna record it the way I feel it." Cash noted that adding trumpets was a change to his basic sound.
When the song failed to become a major hit for Anita, Cash recorded it his own way, adding the mariachi-style horns from his dream. This sound was later used in the song "It Ain't Me Babe", which was recorded around the same time. Mother Maybelle and the Carter sisters are prominently featured in the Cash recording singing harmony. Cash tinkered with a few of the original phrases in Anita Carter's version of the song.
Cash's daughter Rosanne has stated, "The song is about the transformative power of love and that's what it has always meant to me and that's what it will always mean to the Cash children."
In 2004, Merle Kilgore, who shared writing credit for the song with June Carter Cash, proposed licensing the song for a hemorrhoid cream commercial. When performing the song live, Kilgore would often "mock dedicate" the song to "The makers of Preparation H". However, June's heirs were not of a like mind, and they refused to allow the song to be licensed for the ad.
Numerous cover versions of "Ring of Fire" have been produced, the most commercially successful version being by Eric Burdon & the Animals. Their version was recorded at the end of 1968, and made the top 40 in four countries. In late 1974, the Eric Burdon Band released a hard rock version. Wall of Voodoo debuted with a cover of the song on their self-titled 1980 EP and featured a pulsing synthesizer. Dwight Yoakam covered it on his debut album Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. Punk rock band Social Distortion covered it on their 1990 self-titled LP. In 1991, Frank Zappa released a reggae-style live version on the album The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life, after claiming to have met Johnny Cash in the elevator before the show and inviting him to perform the song with his band that night. Cash did not follow through on the invite, but the band played the song anyway. A cover of the song by Alan Jackson with guest vocals from Lee Ann Womack was released as a single on December 6, 2010. It served as the lead-off single to his 34 Number Ones compilation album, and peaked at #45 in the Hot Country Songs, becoming his first single to miss the top 40 since "Just Put a Ribbon in Your Hair" peaked at #51 in 2004. It was his last single released by Arista Records.
Cash's version of "Ring Of Fire" was never released as a single in the United Kingdom. However, in 1993 / 1994, the song gained significant radio airplay in the UK after it was used in a popular television commercial for Levi Jeans (entitled 'Campfire').