Music

'One Piece At A Time:' The Story Behind Johnny Cash's Hilarious Novelty Song

Screengrab via YouTube

The ability to capture a moment in time and write it to be a heartbreak song, a love song, or a novelty song is why music listeners keep names like Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton and Waylon Jennings on their playlists. Sometimes though, the best storytellers are handed stories. That's the case for Johnny Cash's "One Piece At A Time."

The "Folsom Prison Blues" and "The Ballad of Ira Hayes" singer has recorded and released some of the best novelty songs of country music history. "A Boy Named Sue," "If I Told You Who It Was," and "Foolish Questions" hardly scratch the surface of all the hilarious songs The Man In Black released over his career.

One of the most well-known novelty songs of country music is Cash's hit song, "One Piece At A Time." The song is about a poor assembly line worker who sneaks bits and pieces of a Cadillac out of the plant in a lunchbox over the course of 20-or-so years.

One day I devised myself a plan
That should be the envy of most any man
I'd sneak it out of there in a lunchbox in my hand
Now gettin' caught meant gettin' fired
But I figured I'd have it all by the time I retired
I'd have me a car worth at least a hundred grand

I'd get it one piece at a time, and it wouldn't cost me a dime
You'll know it's me when I come through your town
I'm gonna ride around in style; I'm gonna drive everybody wild
'Cause I'll have the only one there is around

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The song was released on Cash's 54th studio album One Piece At A Time in 1976. This single was the last of Cash's songs to reach No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Country chart and the last to be on Billboard Hot 100, where the song peaked at No. 29.

In 1977, Bill Patch, a guy from Welch, Oklahoma, who loved to dabble in mechanics, decided to build a Cadillac just like the one in the song. He and his mechanic buddies bought any junked Cadillac pieces they came across and started putting the car together.

Patch presented the car to the "Ring of Fire" singer, and he loved it. The car found its resting spot in the Storytellers Hideaway Farm in Bon Aqua, Tennessee.

Who Wrote 'One Piece At A Time'?

Wayne Kemp, the writer of the song, grew up in a musical family. By the time he was a teenager, Kemp was writing his own songs and touring as a professional musician.

In 1965, a friend passed one of Kemp's demo tapes onto George Jones. Soon, Kemp was in Nashville writing and recording with Jones.

Later that year, Kemp was in a horrible car accident and suffered third-degree burns all over his body. He was told he would never play music again.

Of course, that never stopped him. In 1968, Kemp had his first no. 1 hit with Conway Twitty's "Next in Line." Kemp would continue to write for Twitty and other names like George Strait, Johnny Paycheck, Hank Williams Jr., Ronnie Milsap, Faron Young, Charley Pride, and Ricky Van Shelton.

Kemp was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1999.

'One Piece at a Time' Lyrics:

Well, I left Kentucky back in '49
An' went to Detroit workin' on a 'sembly line
The first year they had me puttin' wheels on Cadillacs
Every day I'd watch them beauties roll by
And sometimes I'd hang my head and cry
'Cause I always wanted me one that was long and black

One day I devised myself a plan
That should be the envy of most any man
I'd sneak it out of there in a lunchbox in my hand
Now gettin' caught meant gettin' fired
But I figured I'd have it all by the time I retired
I'd have me a car worth at least a hundred grand
I'd get it one piece at a time and it wouldn't cost me a dime

You'll know it's me when I come through your town
I'm gonna ride around in style, I'm gonna drive everybody wild
'Cause I'll have the only one there is a round

So the very next day when I punched in
With my big lunchbox and with help from my friends
I left that day with a lunch box full of gears
I've never considered myself a thief
But GM wouldn't miss just one little piece

Especially if I strung it out over several years
The first day I got me a fuel pump
And the next day I got me an engine and a trunk
Then I got me a transmission and all of the chrome
The little things I could get in my big lunchbox
Like nuts, an' bolts, and all four shocks

But the big stuff we snuck out in my buddy's mobile home
Now, up to now my plan went all right
'Til we tried to put it all together one night
And that's when we noticed that something was definitely wrong
The transmission was a '53 and the motor turned out to be a '73

And when we tried to put in the bolts all the holes were gone
So we drilled it out so that it would fit
And with a little bit of help with an adapter kit
We had that engine runnin' just like a song
Now the headlight' was another sight
We had two on the left and one on the right

But when we pulled out the switch all three of 'em come on
The back end looked kinda funny too
But we put it together and when we got through
Well, that's when we noticed that we only had one tail-fin

About that time my wife walked out
And I could see in her eyes that she had her doubts
But she opened the door and said, "Honey, take me for a spin"
So we drove up town just to get the tags
And I headed her right on down main drag
I could hear everybody laughin' for blocks around

But up there at the court house they didn't laugh
'Cause to type it up it took the whole staff
And when they got through the title weighed sixty pounds
I got it one piece at a time and it didn't cost me a dime

You'll know it's me when I come through your town
I'm gonna ride around in style, I'm gonna drive everybody wild
'Cause I'll have the only one there is around

Uh yow, Red Ryder, this is the cotton mouth
In the Psycho-Billy Cadillac come on, huh, this is the cotton mouth
And negatory on the cost of this mow-chine there Red Ryder
You might say I went right up to the factory
And picked it up, it's cheaper that way
Uh, what model is it?
Well, it's a '49, '50, '51, '52, '53, '54, '55, '56
'57, '58' 59' automobile
It's a '60, '61, '62, '63, '64, '65, '66, '67
'68, '69, '70 automobile

 

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'One Piece At A Time:' The Story Behind Johnny Cash's Hilarious Novelty Song