To me, "Bird on a Wire" has always been a Johnny Cash song. He made this song his own as a centerpiece of his artistic rebirth with the first 1994 American Recordings album. Many people have covered this modern standard, but no one else has quite the unique vocal authority of Johnny Cash.
Leonard Cohen is obviously a distinguished composer, but he's a marginal singer at best. Songwriting and singing are very different occupations. Some people happen to be good at both, but not always. Cohen just isn't a professional quality singer. Crikey, his 1969 original recording on Songs from a Room sounds like Elmer Fudd croaking. Few people would know this song if it were all based on this very marginal performance. As a great songwriter who just can't sing, Cohen may rate even below the dreaded vocals of Kris Kristofferson.
Johnny Cash, though, was a world class song stylist. He wasn't particularly the fanciest singer, but he had this powerful baritone and a great depth of emotional experience nuanced into his best performances that can't be touched. He had a real unique authority as a personality that comes out in the records. However, I'm not entirely sure how much of this effect comes from the expertise of his actual vocal performances versus how much is some kind of perception based on extraneous personality factors, all the stuff we know about his legend being folded in on top of the actual recording.
Johnny Cash delivers Cohen's poetic lines of sadness and regret like someone who's really had some things to regret. That he's just sitting in the living room with an acoustic guitar leaves the beauty of those words in bold baritone relief.
No one else could make the song come out like this. Indeed, this seems to be a high pick among many Johnny Cash fans out of his whole catalog. Like I said, it's Johnny's song.
Recently though, I discovered KD Lang's outstanding 2004 album of songs by fellow Canadians, Hymns of the 49th Parallel. Man, that's some good singing. For starters, she obviously blows Neil Young away as a singer on "After the Gold Rush."
Slowly though, it's dawned on me that she didn't just blow Neil Young out with this album, but Johnny Cash as well. She did considerably more with "Bird on a Wire" than even the classic Cash standard just about every which way.
For starters, she has a far more interesting arrangement. "Bird on a Wire" is a great song, and this song's almost all in the vocal melody, so it works fine with nothing behind it but the simplest acoustic rhythm guitar. Again, that helps to showcase the authoritative vocal.