Johnny Cash‘s “I Walk the Line” is not only one of his greatest songs, but is often considered one of the best in all music, with Rolling Stone ranking it as the 30th greatest song of all time. The song became Cash’s first number one hit, and has sold over 2 million copies since its 1956 release.
The reason “I Walk the Line” was so popular is because it didn’t sound like the other songs on the radio. Bob Dylan had nothing but praise for the song when he spoke about it to Rolling Stone, and said what made it such a hit is the fact that “it was different than anything else you had ever heard.“
It’s well-known that the lyrics to the song were Cash’s way of expressing his love for his first wife, Vivian. As Cash told author Dorothy Horstman, who quoted him in her book Sing Your Heart Out, Country Boy, “I wrote the song backstage one night in 1956 in Gladewater, Texas. I was newly married at the time, and I suppose I was laying out my pledge of devotion.“
But the unique chord progression to the song is something Cash came up with years earlier, and the reason why is surprising.
While stationed in Germany when he was serving in the Air Force, Cash purchased a tape recorder with the money he saved up. But one night, someone messed with the recorder, and when Cash got back in the morning he put in a tape by his band, the Landsberg Barbarians, to see if it still worked. In his autobiography, Cash revealed how what happened next went on to make music history:
“Out came the strangest sound, a haunting drone full of weird chord changes. To me it seemed like some sort of spooky church music, and at the end there was what sounded like somebody saying ‘Father.’ I played it a million times, trying to figure it out…but finally I solved the puzzle: the tape had gotten turned around somehow, and I was hearing Barbarian guitar chords played backward. The drone and those weird chord changes stayed with me and surfaced in the melody of ‘I Walk the Line.'”
After all that time, Cash turned a backwards-playing tape into a number one hit song that has since earned an iconic status. It goes to show that inspiration can strike at any time, and being the artist he was, Cash knew where to find it.
You can watch Cash perform “I Walk the Line” in the video below.
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