I Walk the Line
Writer(s): Johnny Cash (see lyrics here)
Released: May 1, 1956
First Charted: June 9, 1956
Peak: 17 US, 23 CB, 21 HR, 16 CW, 2 DF (Click for codes to charts.)
Sales (in millions): 2.0 US
Airplay/Streaming (in millions): 1.0 radio, 12.2 video, 284.47 streaming
Click on award for more details.
About the Song:
Johnny Cash, “to many, epitomizes country music more than any other artist.” AH Indeed, he would eventually rank as one of the top 5 country artists of all-time according to Billboard magazine. However, in his beginning years at Sun Records he was “making music that was stylistically indistinguishable from any of the other rockabilly artists there.” AH As such, “his image was always a little more appealing to rock audiences” AH than most country singers. In fact, it was Elvis Presley’s “That’s All Right, Mama,” recorded at Sun, which encouraged Cash to approach Sam Phillips at Sun Records. AH
In 1956, Cash’s career was barely underway. He had charted with “Cry! Cry! Cry!” (#14), “So Doggone Lonesome” (#4), and “Folsom Prison Blues” (#4). His fourth chart entry, “I Walk the Line,” hit #1 on the Billboard country chart and #17 on the Billboard Hot 100. Over the next thirty years, he sent well over 100 songs to the country charts, fourteen which topped the chart.
The song’s unusual chord progression dated back to 1950. During Cash’s days in the Air Force in Germany, he wrote songs with the help of a tape machine. Five years later, he was fiddling around with it backstage while on tour with label mate Carl Perkins. Perkins said Cash should build a song around it. Cash didn’t come up with the idea for the song until he and Perkins talked later about guys running around on their wives while out on the road. Cash, who had a new baby and was newly married, said, “Not me buddy. I walk the line.” Perkins said, “there’s your song title.” TC Interestingly, Cash had suggested the title to Perkins for his biggest hit, “Blue Suede Shoes.” Cash relayed the story to Perkins of a buddy in the Air Force who would get all dressed up to go out and warn people, “don’t step on my blue suede shoes, man.” TC
“I Walk the Line” is “the essence of musical simplicity, yet somehow carries an aura of deep mystery, power, and total devotion but also understated menace if that devoted is ever betrayed.” SS Cash recorded the song with Perkins and his own regular Tennessee Two duo of guitarist Luther Perkins and bassist Marshall Grant. TC To get a more percussive sound from his guitar, Cash wound a piece of wax paper through the guitar strings. RS500 The melody was the result of a mix-up on a reel-to-reel tape recorder in which the tahpe got turned around and the guitar chords were played backwards. As he said, “The drone and those weird chord changes stayed with me and surfaced in the melody of ‘I Walk the Line.’” SS Bob Dylan said, “It was different than anything else you had ever heard…a voice from the middle of the earth.” RS500
Cash wanted to perform it “as a slow, plaintive, lovelorn ballad” AH but Phillips “thought it had some potential if it was sped up to the kind of tempo that ‘Hey Porter,’ “Cry Cry Cry,’ and ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ had all been performed in – a rock and roll tempo, for Cash’s rock and roll audience.” AH They ended up recording two versions but, to Cash’s dismay, Phillips released the faster one. When it became a “massive hit…Cash decided that maybe the sound wasn’t so bad after all.” AH
First posted 7/15/2011; last updated 8/23/2023.