photo of Rodney Crowell
Claudia Church

Rooted in Country: Rodney Crowell on Johnny Cash's 'I Walk the Line'

When asked when he knew he wanted to become a songwriter, the prolific Rodney Crowell credits a culmination of many moments. The singer-songwriter behind "After All This Time," "Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Day Light," "Ashes By Now" and more,  reflects on several key memories: hearing his father sing the country classic "No One Will Ever Know," listening to Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" and forming a bond with friend and mentor Guy Clark.

"Eventually the cumulative effect of it all starts to resonate," Crowell told Wide Open Country in 2021. "And then I get to Nashville and stumbled into Guy Clark....It was like, 'Oh, I want to do that.' But it was a culmination of how much I loved what songs and what words did to me from the very beginning."

But it's a musical moment from his childhood that Crowell would commemorate in song: the other-worldly experience of the first time her heart Johnny Cash's "I Walk the Line."

"I realize now the first time I heard 'I Walked the Line' by Johnny Cash," Crowell recalls, "I know subconsciously I had this experience of like 'how do you do that?'

Read More: Rooted in Country: Jamestown Revival on Guy Clark and Willie Nelson

It's not uncommon for artists to pay homage to their heroes through cover songs. Crowell took it a step further with "I Walk the Line (Revisited)," a tribute to Cash's 1956 hit that features the Man in Black singing his timeless lyrics — with a brand new melody.

Read More: Rodney Crowell on Universal Love, Learning From Guy Clark and New Album 'Triage' [Interview]

Crowell says he didn't consider the boldness of asking the country legend to change his own song until an encounter with Cash in the studio.

"I use his lyric as the chorus of the song...but I wrote the melody he was going to be singing," Crowell says. "So I'm teaching him and he looks at me. He's kinda squinting. He says, 'You got a lot of damn nerve changing my melody, son.' Then I got intimidated,  [thinking] 'I'm painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa. Who do I think I am?' [Laughs] But then I recovered, you know, with this flippant 'Yeah, and you're just the guy to go out there and do it.' And he goes up there and he nails it in two takes. On the mic, he says 'Will that do?' and I said 'beautifully.' It was a good moment."

Crowell, who was married to Cash's daughter Rosanne Cash from 1979 to 1992, remained close with his hero and collaborator. And his willingness to take a risk with country music's da Vinci paid off.

"I was so far up into the process of making [the song], I didn't even stop to think that — this master artist, I was asking him to re-paint his Mona Lisa," Crowell continues. "I would say it was more innocence than arrogance on my part. I just was just chasing the piece of art."

'I Walk the Line (Revisited)' Lyrics:

I'm back on board that '49 Ford in 1956
Long before the sun came up way out in the sticks
The headlight showed a two rut roadway, back up in the pines
First time I heard Johnny Cash sing I walk the line
I got my thrill behind the wheel upon my daddy's lap
Grandpa rode co-pilot with a flashlight and a map
Cane pole out the window it was in the summertime
First time I heard Johnny Cash sing 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
I never will forget that day, I know the time and place
Sounded like the whole thing came right down from outer space
I still can see those headlights and that dashboard in my mind
The first time I heard Johnny Cash sing 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
All these long years later it's still music to my ears
I swear it sounds as good right now as anything I hear
I've seen the Mona Lisa, I've heard Shakespeare read real fine
Just like hearing Johnny Cash sing 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 know proves that it's right
Because you're mine, I walk the line
Because you're mine, I walk the line