The Story Behind the Hit Song Johnny Cash Wrote in 20 Minutes

What can one person get done in 20 minutes? When we ask ourselves this question, answers might range from “unload and reload the dishwasher” and “take a shower” to “watch almost an entire episode of Parks and Recreation.”

One answer that’s probably never uttered, at least not be the average person, is “write a hit song.” Johnny Cash, the legendary musician, did just that with his hit song, “I Walk the Line.” Keep reading to get all the details about Cash’s hit song.

What is Johnny Cash’s song, ‘I Walk the Line,’ about?

Cash, 23 years old at the time, wrote the song after he went on tour with 20-year-old Elvis Presley, who had already amassed a fanbase of adoring fans. “I Walk the Line” served as a reminder for Cash to stay faithful to his first wife, Vivian Liberto while on tour with Presley, according to Mental Floss. “It was kind of a prodding to myself to ‘Play it straight, Johnny,'” Cash said of the song.

Johnny Cash singing ‘I Walk the Line’ in 1958. | YouTube

The song’s second meaning

“I Walk the Line” wasn’t just a story about fidelity for Cash. Sam Phillips of Sun Records reportedly didn’t want any gospel songs but Cash used the story of staying faithful to wife on tour as a way to get the gospel song green-lighted by Phillips.

Cash ‘really didn’t like’ the song upon release

Cash once recalled why he didn’t like “I Walk the Line” in the beginning, according to NPR. “Well, Sam wanted it up–you know, up-tempo. And I put paper in the strings of my guitar to get that–(makes guitar noises)–sound. And with a bass and a lead guitar, there it was,” Cash said.

Johnny Cash
Johnny Cash performing on stage. | Andrew Lepley/Redferns

“Bare and stark that song was when it was released. And I heard it on the radio, and I really didn’t like it. And I called Sam Phillips and I asked him please not to send out any more records of that song. But he said, `Let’s give it a chance.’ And it was just a few days until–that’s all it took to take off,” he added.

Meeting June Carter

While Cash partly intended “I Walk the Line” to serve as a reminder to him to be faithful to his wife on tour, the real temptation came later when he met June Carter. On July 7, 1956, Cash met his future wife at the Grand Ole Opry, where he performed at the venue for the first time. His song, “I Walk the Line,” had been released two months before his Opry performance.

The date served as a landmark moment for Cash in both his personal and professional careers. Backstage Cash met Carter, who at the time was married to country singer, Carl Smith. Carter had reportedly become a fan of Cash’s music while on tour with Presley and Cash grew up listening to Carter on the radio as part of Mother Maybelle & the Carter Sisters. Cash introduced himself to his future wife by saying, “I’ve always wanted to meet you,” to which Carter replied, “I feel like I know you already.”

June Carter and Johnny Cash in 1969.
Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash pose for a portrait at an event in September 1969 in California. | Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Carter later described first meeting Cash in the liner notes of Love, God, Murder, Cash’s box set released in 2000. “I can’t remember anything else we talked about, except his eyes,” she wrote. “Those black eyes that shone like agates…He had a command of his performance that I had never before. Just a guitar and a bass and a gentle kind of presence that made not only me, but whole audiences become his followers.”

Carter and Cash would go on to marry in the late 1960s and remain together until their deaths in 2003.