Johnny Cash’s ‘I Walk the Line’ Came From Hearing a Tape Being Played Backwards

by Josh Lanier

Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line” has a bizarre history. Written as an ode of fidelity to his first wife, the song was meant to be a promise to her that he’d be faithful and sober. A promise he almost immediately broke. But how the song got that sound is even stranger.

While stationed in Germany with the U.S. Air Force, Cash, and his band at the time, the Landsberg Barbarians would record their practice sessions and listen back later to see if anything stood out. One day, Cash pressed play and noticed something sounded very wrong.

He wrote about what happened next in his autobiography, according to MentalFloss.

I was on the eleven-to-seven shift in the radio intercept room one night, listening in on the Russians, and when I got back to the barracks in the morning I discovered that someone had been messing with my tape machine.

I put on a Barbarians tape to test it, and out came the strangest sound, a haunting drone full of weird chord changes. To me, it seemed like some sort of spooky church music, and at the end, there was what sounded like somebody saying “Father.” I played it a million times, trying to figure it out, and even asked some Catholics in my unit if they recognized it from one of their services (they didn’t), but finally, I solved the puzzle: the tape had gotten turned around somehow, and I was hearing Barbarian guitar chords played backward. The drone and those weird chord changes stayed with me and surfaced in the melody of “I Walk the Line.”

Johnny Cash Cash: The Autobiograpy

Johnny Cash Wrote ‘Walk The Line’ as Promise to 1st Wife

Not only is it one of “I Walk the Line” one of Johnny Cash’s biggest hits, but it’s the name of the 2005 biopic about his life. It’s ironic considering the movie focuses on Cash’s love affair with June Carter. Though the song was written about Cash’s devotion to his first wife, the woman he cheats on with Carter.

Cash wrote “I Walk the Line” for his wife Vivian Liberto in 1956. It appeared on his second album With His Hot and Blue Guitar. He was rising at Sun Records, opening for Elvis Presley on tour, The Boot says.

“I was newly married at the time. And I suppose I was laying out my pledge of devotion,” he wrote about the song.

Ironically, the fame he earned from the song only increased the temptations he was facing.

“Hmm. Fame was pretty hard to handle, actually,” he said, according to NPR reported. “The country boy in me tried to break loose and take me back to the country. But the music was stronger. And the temptations were women, girls, which I loved, and then amphetamines not very much later. Running all night, you know, in our cars on tour and the doctors got these nice pills that give us energy and keep us awake. So I was taking the pills for a while, and then the pills started taking me.”

Cash would eventually sober up and live up to the his words in “I Walk the Line” with his wife June.