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On This Day In Music… May 1, 1956: Johnny Cash Releases 'I Walk the Line'

'I Walk the Line' was written about marital fidelity, but would become a metaphor for Cash’s whole life.

johnny cash walk the line
Source: mega / sun records

'I Walk the Line' was Cash's third release for Sun Records.

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When Johnny Cash released his third single “I Walk the Line” on May 1, 1956, he was already a hot prospect, and one of the rising stars of Sam Phillips’ Sun Records label, alongside Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and – at least until a few months earlier – Elvis Presley. (Elvis had left Sun for RCA in November 1955.) After “I Walk the Line” he became a headline name in his own right. And it was almost the undoing of him.

“I Walk the Line” shot to No. 1 in the Country Charts and gave the singer his first Billboard Hot 100 hit, with the song making No. 17 in that chart. It also set in place a sound, and an attitude, that would continue for the rest of his life.

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johnny cash live
Source: mega

Johnny Cash would continue to walk the line for the rest of his life.

The song was written while on tour with the Sun roster, originally as a message of fidelity to his then-wife Vivian; it would not only become Cash’s signature tune, but a metaphor for his whole troubled life. “I was newly married at the time, and I suppose I was laying out my pledge of devotion,” Cash is quoted as saying in Dorothy Hourstman’s 1976 book, Sing Your Heart Out, Country Boy.

“I keep a close watch on this heart of mine,” he sang. “I keep my eyes wide open all the time / I keep the ends out for the tie that binds – because you're mine, I walk the line.”

Johnny Cash did not walk that line particularly steadily – he and Vivian would divorce in 1966 – and he spent the years following the song’s success on a metaphorical razor’s edge, frequently arrested, addicted to alcohol and amphetamines, and prone to violent outbursts. In 1965 he was banned from country music’s spiritual home the Grand Ole Opry for smashing 60 footlights after a show.

“He was as skinny as a snake and just as possible to predict,” Cash’s friend Kris Kristofferson told Nicholas Dawidoff, author of In the Country of Country. “Everybody was afraid of him. He'd eaten so many pills he was flying.”

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Johnny Cash was born in 1932, the middle child of seven, and from the age of five was helping his parents and siblings in the cotton fields, where the family would sing gospel songs together to take their minds off the backbreaking work.

By the age of 12 he was writing his own songs on a guitar that his mother had taught him to play, and when he enlisted in the Air Force in 1950, he took the guitar with him.

Posted to West Germany as a Morse code operator, he formed his first gospel band, The Landsberg Barbarians, named after their base. He was discharged in July 1954, and returned to the States, where he married long-time sweetheart Vivian Liberto, and settled in Memphis, Tennessee.

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johnny cash i walk the line
Source: mega

When Cash returned from the Air Force he was determined to make it in the music industry.

In Memphis he teamed up with guitarist Luther Perkins and bassist Marshall Grant, and approached Sam Phillips at Sun Studios – at that time the hottest producer in town.

Phillips was not initially impressed with the trio’s gospel sound, and, according to one story, told Cash to “go home and sin, then come back with a song I can sell.”

How true that story is remains contested, but either way, Cash took him at his word, and in 1955, armed with a new set of songs, joined Presley, Perkins and a wild pianist named Jerry Lee Lewis as part of the Sun recording and touring line-up. That same year the singles “Cry! Cry! Cry!” and “Folsom Prison Blues” performed well in the country chart, with the latter making No. 4.

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In his 2006 book I Was There When It Happened: My Life With Johnny Cash, bassist Grant recalled the night “I Walk the Line” was written, claiming that after jamming out the original chords backstage at a show in Longview Texas, the trio completed the song in the car ride to their next gig. “By the time we got to the next town, we had the arrangement worked out and John was singing the whole song,” he wrote. “There’s no doubt that ‘I Walk the Line’ was the turning point in our career.”

The distinctive melody had its roots during Cash’s time in the Air Force. In his autobiography he said that after loading a tape on his reel-to-reel recorder backwards, he heard a “haunting drone full of weird chord changes, something that sounded like spooky church music.” The unusual, reversed, down-and-up progression stuck with him.

As for the lyrics – they were nakedly personal. Cash may have been a newlywed, but he was also a 24-year-old rising music star on the road with Elvis Presley. Temptation was everywhere. As he later put it: “It was kind of a prodding to myself to, ‘Play it straight, Johnny’.”

johnny cash
Source: mega

'I Walk the Line' would remain in the charts for 43 weeks, selling 2 million copies.

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Although he originally wrote the song as a slow ballad, Phillips persuaded Cash to record a faster version; released as his third single, the song took off, not only topping the country chart, but breaking into the Top 20 of the Hot 100. It remained in the charts for over 43 weeks, selling over 2 million copies.

But with the fame that “I Walk the Line” brought Cash, the original temptations that inspired the song only became stronger – and were not limited to girls.

"Fame was pretty hard to handle,” he later said. “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.”

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Cash followed Elvis out of Sun in 1958 to sign a big-money deal with Columbia Records, but even as he became an established presence in the charts and on television over the following decades, the line he walked grew increasingly precarious. He and Vivian divorced in 1966 after numerous infidelities, and in 1967, he was arrested for attempting to bribe a police deputy after crashing his car while high on amphetamines.

He was rescued from an early grave by second wife June Carter, and despite relapses in the late 1970s and 80s, continued to walk the line until September 12, 2003, when he died aged 71, having left a five-decade legacy of music that continues to thrill and inspire today.

Six months before he died, Cash once again entered the charts, with his version of the Nine Inch Nails song, “Hurt”. The single would be awarded the Country Music Association single of the year, and be nominated for six MTV Video Music Awards. It has since sold over two million downloads – matching the two million sales for “I Walk the Line”.


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