“I Walk the Line” is one of Johnny Cash’s most famous songs, and it originally started off as a message of his love to his then-wife Vivian Liberto. The couple wed in 1954 and welcomed four daughters together – Rosanne, Kathy, Cindy and Tara – before divorcing in 1966.
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Liberto would prove to be influential to Cash’s early career, as their union inspired his breakthrough hit, “I Walk the Line.” Below, we explore the history of “I Walk the Line.”
Meaning Behind the Song:
“I was newly married at the time, and I suppose I was laying out my pledge of devotion,” Cash is quoted saying in Dorothy Hourstman’s 1976 book, Sing Your Heart Out, Country Boy. That theme of devotion is reflected in such lyrics as, 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.
In the 2006 book, I Was There When It Happened: My Life With Johnny Cash, co-written by Marshall Grant, the upright and electric bassist in Cash’s band the Tennessee Two, recalls the night the song was written. It all started backstage at their show in Longview, Texas, in 1956. Grant was playing chords on his newly-acquired upright bass, playing particular series of notes. At Cash’s request, he played them again, Cash jumping in with chords on guitar while singing the lyrics that became the opening line, I keep a close watch on this heart of mine.
“Then he stopped and said, ‘Now don’t forget those little things, because tonight we’re going to write a song,'” Grant recalls. “We’re gonna write our next record.'” True to his word, Cash and his bandmates wrote the song in full that night on the car ride to their next gig. Grant taught the notes he was playing on bass to guitarist Luther Perkins while Cash sang the first verse. The song took shape over the course of an hour.
“By the time we got to the next town, we had the arrangement worked out and John was singing the whole song,” Grant says.
The song was originally crafted as a ballad, which Cash was adamant about keeping until Sun Records founder and the song’s producer, Sam Phillips, requested that they cut a more uptempo version. Despite the band’s insistence that the record label release the ballad to radio, Phillips went ahead and issued the faster version, which proved to be a resounding success. It hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, becoming Cash’s first chart topper, and crossed over into mainstream music, peaking at No. 17 on the Billboard Hot 100. In the book, Grant says “there’s no doubt that ‘I Walk the Line’ was the turning point in our career.”
Melodically, Cash allegedly drew inspiration from real-life sounds and quotes. A 2000 retrospective story on “I Walk the Line” by NPR reports that the guitar chords came from sounds on Cash’s tape recorder from when he was in the Air Force in Germany that turned out to be a backward recording of a song by the band he performed with overseas, Landsberg Barbarians. Cash also said the humming at the beginning of each verse was inspired by a physician he went to as a child in Arkansas who would hum all the time during appointments and that the line I keep my eyes wide open all the time was a quote from writer and lecturer Dale Carnegie.
Cash’s former son-in-law Rodney Crowell, an acclaimed singer/songwriter known for his chart-topping, Grammy-winning song “After All This Time,” grew up a fan of Cash’s music, long before he was married to his daughter Rosanne Cash from 1979 to 1992.
“Before ‘I Walk the Line,’ it would have been summed up as `I’ll be true to you,’ or something a little more Hallmark,” Crowell hypothesized to NPR. “But with him it’s, like, `Because you’re mine, I walk the line.’ It’s just…the razor’s edge is just sharper.”
“It can be a lot of things–integrity and courage, the courage of your convictions,” Crowell described of the meaning of the song’s title. “And certainly, Johnny Cash has stood for that kind of integrity and that kind of stick-to-your-guns mentality.”
Years after their divorce Liberto used the song as the title of her memoir, which was posthumously published in 2007. Cash later married June Carter Cash in 1968, their marriage lasting until her death in 2003. Cash passed away four months later at the age of 71.
Courtesy of The John R Cash Trust / Shorefire Media