“You’ll Know It’s Me When I Come Through Your Town”: Fast Facts About “One Piece at a Time” by Johnny Cash

Most country acts in the late ’60s and early ’70s wore rhinestones and embroidered suits. Johnny Cash was the exception. He chose to wear all black to represent the poor and hungry, the “prisoner who has long paid for his crime, and those who have been betrayed by age or drugs,” Cash wrote in his 1997 autobiography, “The old are still neglected, the poor are still poor, the young are still dying before their time, and we’re not making many moves to make things right. There’s still plenty of darkness to carry off.”

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After a successful run of releases on the Billboard Hot Country Singles Chart, Cash had several years of less-than-desirable results, going five years without reaching the top spot. That changed in the summer of 1976. Let’s look at the story behind “One Piece at a Time” by Johnny Cash.

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


During the mid-’70s energy crisis, Cash made commercials for Amoco and STP. He also wrote music and appeared in commercials for Lionel Trains. Although his records weren’t selling, his first autobiography, Man in Black, was published and sold 1.3 million copies.

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

Billy Graham

During this period, Cash struck up a friendship with evangelist Billy Graham. He co-wrote and narrated a movie about the life of Jesus called Gospel Road: A Story of Jesus. Along with his wife June Carter Cash, he appeared on the Billy Graham Crusade TV specials and continued to include gospel songs on his albums.

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 the chrome
The little things I could get in my big lunchbox
Like nuts and 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

No. 1

After Cash’s drought on the Billboard charts, “One Piece at a Time” reached the top spot on the Hot Country Songs Chart and crossed over to reach No. 29 on the Hot 100. This would be the last time Cash would top the country charts or appear in the Hot 100.

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 tailfin
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”

The Real Car

Columbia Records had a Nashville salvage yard assemble a Cadillac, as described in the song, to promote the single. The House of Cash Museum in Hendersonville, Tennessee, displayed the car. It remained on display until 1986 and was later destroyed.

So we drove uptown just to get the tags
And I headed her right on down the main drag
I could hear everybody laughin’ for blocks around
But up there at the courthouse, they didn’t laugh
‘Cause to type it up, it took the whole staff
And when they got through, the title weighed 60 pounds
I got 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

Psychobilly Cadillac

As punk rock became more popular, rockabilly and garage bands embraced the term psychobilly. The Cramps, who sprang out of Sacramento, California, began using the terms “psychobilly” and “rockabilly voodoo” on their flyers. Their 1979 album Songs the Lord Taught Us is a cornerstone of the psychobilly genre.

Ugh! Yeah, Red Rider
This is the Cotton Mouth
In the Psychobilly Cadillac, Come on
Huh, This is the Cotton Mouth
And negatory on the cost of this mo-chine there Red Rider
You might say I went right up to the factory
And picked it up. It’s cheaper that way
Ugh! 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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Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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