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Johnny Cash‘s “I Walk the Line” was one of his greatest songs. Not only that, but Rolling Stone once ranked it as the 30th greatest song of all time. An updated version of the Rolling Stone ranking now lists “I Walk the Line” at the 76th position.
“I Walk the Line” became Cash’s first number one single. It has sold over 2 million copies since its 1956 release.
“I Walk the Line” didn’t sound like any of the other songs on the radio when it was released. This was a huge part of its appeal, leading to its popularity.
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 in the song is something Cash came up with years earlier. His inspiration came from a surprising source.
Cash purchased a tape recorder with the money he saved up while stationed in Germany during his time in the Air Force.
Someone messed with the recorder one night. When Cash returned in the morning, he tried to play a tape by his band, the Landsberg Barbarians, to see if the recorder still worked.
In his autobiography, Cash revealed what happened next:
“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.'”
Yes…Cash turned a backwards-playing tape into a number one hit single. It goes to show that inspiration can strike at any time. Being the artist he was, Cash knew where to find it.
You can watch Cash perform “I Walk the Line” in the video below.