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Country Classics Revisited: Johnny Cash’s ‘I Walk the Line’

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On April 2, 1956, Johnny Cash’s “I Walk The Line” hit No. 1 on the country music charts as the third single off of Cash’s first album, Johnny Cash with His Hot and Blue Guitar. Sixty-two years later, the song is still on everyone’s lips as one of the most recognizable tunes by the Man In Black. By taking a look at the track’s history, we can see why and how it’s earned its legacy.

The Song’s Birth

“I Walk the Line” was the recorded at Sun Studios for Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee. A 24-year-old Cash is said to have written the lyrics in just 20 minutes as the words about his then-wife, Vivian Liberto, flowed out of him.

But as Mental Floss explains, the melody was developed back when Cash was serving in the Air Force stationed in Germany. He recorded a track with his band the Landsberg Barbarians, and when he went back to listen to the tape, he found that it produced an eerie droning and strange progression that became the inspiration for “I Walk The Line.” (He later figured out that the tape had gotten turned around and was playing backwards.)

Originally, Cash wanted to record song at a much slower tempo, making it a ballad. But once his producer, Sam Phillips, encouraged him to speed up the track, it became the song we know by heart today. Cash decided on the title “I Walk The Line” for the track after fellow musician Carl Perkins pointed out that it would make for a great title.

Looking At The Lyrics

In this song, Cash is singing about his pledge to fidelity with his new wife, despite his previous days on tour where he was promiscuous. But Cash goes beyond simply stressing his devotion. He adds an inner, spiritual element even within the first two lines: “I keep a close watch on this heart of mine/I keep my eyes wide open all the time.” The lyrics are thoughtful and so intent on pure devotion that they border on overwhelming or obsessive.

But there’s another wordless vocal element to the song – Cash’s humming. As with many aspects of Cash, there seems to be a bit of mystery behind the hums before the verses. Cash reportedly said on his TV show that he was simply trying to get his pitch on key, while NPR says that Cash mentioned drawing inspiration from “Dr. Hollingsworth, a physician in his hometown who was always humming.”

The Song’s Reception

Just weeks after the song’s release, Cash performed “I Walk The Line” at the Grand Ole Opry and was met with thunderous applause and a standing ovation. Audiences instinctively connected with Cash’s unique track and vocals while musicians tried to put into words what was so special about Cash.

“It was different than anything else you had ever heard,” Bob Dylan told Rolling Stone. “A voice from the middle of the Earth.” And NPR quotes Cash’s former son-in-law Rodney Crowell as saying, “Johnny Cash’s voice—you know, if Mt. Rushmore could open its mouth—any one of the sculptures on Mt. Rushmore could open their mouths and sing, that’s what it would sound like.”

The song stayed on the country charts for a solid year and sold over 2 million records. It even showed up on the pop charts for a while, giving Cash a bonafide crossover hit.

The Legacy Of The Track

Of course, many artists have covered this classic Cash song. Dolly Parton’s version on The Great Pretender has an 80s-vibe update, Glen Campbell’s cover has a jazzier, upbeat feel. And, of course, the track has crossed genres with covers by ’90s alt-rock band Live and a 2015 cover by pop singer Halsey.

One particularly interesting “cover” of sorts is by Rodney Crowell who wrote “I Walk The Line Revisited” as an ode to the incredible song. Crowell released the song in 1998 featuring new lyrics and Cash himself singing parts of the original song.

Read More: The Lasting Impact of Johnny Cash’s ‘Hurt’

Cash re-recorded “I Walk The Line” several times in the studio, including a track for the 1970 film of the same name starring Gregory Peck. Years later, in 2005, the song was used as a title for a film once again, but this time it told the tale of Cash’s life. The box office hit was directed by James Mangold and starred Joaquin Phoenix as Mr. Cash and Reese Witherspoon as June Carter. She took home the Oscar that year for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role.

As one of the most recognizable songs in country music, the song will surely be performed for decades to come by musicians of every level in any setting. The complicated sentiments behind the seemingly simple lyrics combined with the unexpected musical elements of the track will continue to leave audiences in a daze of its magic.

“I Walk The Line” Lyrics:

I keep a close watch on this heart of mine
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
I find it very, very easy to be true
I find myself alone when each day’s through
Yes, I’ll admit that I’m a fool for you
Because you’re mine, I walk the line
As sure as night is dark and day is light
I keep you on my mind both day and night
And happiness I’ve known proves that it’s right
Because you’re mine, I walk the line
You’ve got a way to keep me on your side
You give me cause for love that I can’t hide
For you I know I’d even try to turn the tide
Because you’re mine, I walk the line
I keep a close watch on this heart of mine
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

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Country Classics Revisited: Johnny Cash’s ‘I Walk the Line’