Johnny Cash wrote “I Walk the Line” for his first wife, Vivian Liberto. It’s an ode to marital fidelity and avoiding temptation and criminal behavior; a promise to keep the faith when things get difficult. A promise Cash broke almost immediately.
The Man In Black has one of the most impressive libraries of country and rock music of all time. From “Folsom Prison Blues” to “Boy Named Sue” to “Ring of Fire” there are few musicians that have left such a deep and heavy impression on country. But “I Walk the Line” may be the song that most people know from the Arkansas native.
But how’d it come about?
The Ironic History of ‘I Walk The Line’
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.
One of Cash’s biggest hits, “Ring of Fire,” is believed to have been written by Carter as she fell in love with a man who didn’t walk the line. She said falling in love with Cash was terrifying because at the time he was a married, alcoholic, drug addict.
“When I first fell in love with Johnny Cash, it was a scary thing,” June Carter Cash once said. “I never knew what he was going to do. I didn’t know him too well and he was just kind of a wild man — a big kind of a wild man. But God was truly good and [Cash] is a great husband. He’s a great daddy to the children … He’s just a nice man and I wanted you to know that.”
She later wrote of the song: “There is no way to be in that kind of hell, no way to extinguish a flame that burns, burns, burns.”
Cash admits he wasn’t prepared for fame, he said, despite his song of promise to his wife.
“Hmm. Fame was pretty hard to handle, actually,” he said, according to NPR. “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.”
How Johnny Cash Wrote One of His Biggest Hits
“I Walk the Line” is emblematic of Cash’s work. And like most good art, it’s easy to understand. However, as you dig deeper, the meaning, provenance, and history get murkier and more interesting.
Carter wrote “I Walk the Line” for Liberto in 1956. It appeared on his second album “With His Hot and Blue Guitar.” He was rising at Sun Records and his career was starting to blossom as he opened for Elvis Presley on tour, The Boot says. There were always women around The King, and Cash wanted to give his new bride a promise of his faithfulness, he said.
“I was newly married at the time, and I suppose I was laying out my pledge of devotion,” he wrote in one of his autobiographies, according to The Boot.
“It was kind of a prodding to myself to, `Play it straight, Johnny,'” Cash said of the song, NPR reported.
Ironically, the success of “I Walk The Line” may have contributed to him straying from it. The song shot to No. 1 on the country charts and reached the Top 20 of the pop charts. This new found fame complicated things, Cash said.
“I Walk The Line” was a reminder to stay true, which it turned out was not very, very easy to do,” Cash wrote, according to SongFacts.com.
Though he eventually met Carter and found religion, and never strayed. His struggles with drugs and alcohol are rock and roll legend, but he eventually was able to overcome those demons as well, he said.
The song’s creation is a mixed bag of memories. Cash either wrote it backstage in Shreveport, Louisiana or in 20 minutes while on tour in Gladewater, Texas, depending on which version of the story you believe. He told both in his two memoirs, the website says.
Singer/songwriter Rodney Crowell said Cash got the melody for the song listening to Morse code transmissions while he was stationed in Germany. He thought the rhythm of the code bounced like a melody, NPR said.