On May 1, 1956, Johnny Cash started to walk the line to iconic stardom.
On this day, he released one of the most popular songs of his career, “I Walk the Line.” This was Cash’s first No.1 hit on the Billboard charts after moderate chart ratings defined his early career. It appeared on his first album, “With His Hot and Blue Guitar.”
The song stayed on the record charts for 43 weeks, sold over two million copies, and would later become the title of his 2005 biopic film starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon. It was also his first pop hit, which reached No. 17 on that chart.
Even now the song is featured in “The 500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll,” a permanent exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Even Bob Dylan called the song “one of the most mysterious and revolutionary of all time” in his autobiography.
What inspired the inspirational country-rock song that helped change the path of the singer and the music world?
The song was actually inspired by a backward playback of one of his guitar runs taped on a tape recorder. He discovered the interesting tune while he was stationed in the United States Air Force. It was originally meant to be a slower ballad, but producer Sam Phillips encouraged a faster tempo and more upbeat tune.
Behind the Story of ‘I Walk the Line’
As far as the tempo goes, Cash once said that the deep and eerie hum that starts near the beginning of the song was actually a way for him to stay in the right pitch for each verse. The uptempo song had several different instances in which Cash changed keys and the humming helped him keep up before he started singing.
Johnny Cash wrote the song for his wife at the time, Vivian, as a pledge of devotion, love, and a promise to stray away from cheating or temptation.
According to Song Facts, Cash was adamant about staying true to himself and his marriage while starting out on the road. He signed with Sun Records in 1955 and toured with Elvis Presley. Presley was known for his massive groups of screaming female fans he attracted to his shows. Cash wrote “I Walk the Line” to remind himself of his values.
“I find it very, very easy to be true / I find myself alone when each day is through / Yes, I’ll admit that I’m a fool for you / Because you’re mine, I walk the line,” Cash croons in the song.
His promises of honesty and devotion were not necessarily kept. He met June Carter Cash when he was on the road. The duo started working together in the 1960s and also started having an affair. Vivian and Johnny Cash divorced in 1966. June Carter and Johnny then got married in 1968.
Johnny Cash’s Song Over the Years
Another country artist, Carl Perkins, suggested the song title, which fits perfectly with the theme of the song. His song would appear in several places over the years. He re-recorded it in 1964 for his “I Walk the Line” album. It also was in his 1969 “At San Quentin” and his 1988 “Classic Cash: Hall of Fame Series.”
Johnny Cash also closed out his TV series, “The Johnny Cash Show” with a performance of this song in 1971 when it was canceled. Several artists like Dean Martin, Dolly Parton, Glen Campbell, Alien Sex Fiend, Halsey, and Rodney Crowell have covered the famous song.
In many ways, it is the defining song of his career.