Stealing Car Parts, “One Piece at a Time” by Johnny Cash 1

Photo Credits: Rolling Stone

“One Piece at a Time” is a country novelty song written by Wayne Kemp and recorded by Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Three in 1976.  This song was the last song performed by Cash to reach number one on the Billboard Hot Country Singles chart and the last of Cash’s songs to reach the Billboard Hot 100 which peaked at number 29.

The story of the song was about a man who left his home in Kentucky in 1949 to pursue work at General Motors in Detroit, Michigan. His job was to install wheels on Cadillacs, watching each one roll by day by day on the assembly line, knowing that he will never be able to afford one of his own.

Beginning almost immediately, he and a co-worker decide to “steal” a Cadillac by way of using their assembly line jobs to obtain the parts via salami slicing. He takes the small parts home hidden in his unusually large lunch box; larger parts are smuggled out in his co-worker’s motorhome. The process of accumulating all the necessary parts turns out to take at least 25 years (the newest part mentioned, the engine, is from 1973). Once they have what they think is a complete car, they attempt to assemble the pieces.Despite some problems, the singer and his co-worker get the car in proper working condition. The singer’s wife is surprised at the outcome but wants a ride in it anyway. Townspeople began laughing at the singer’s unique car as he takes it to have it registered. However, the folks at the courthouse were not as pleased — it took the “whole staff” to type up the vehicle title, which ended up weighing 60 pounds (27 kg).

The song ends with a CB radio conversation between the singer and a truck driver inquiring about the “psychobilly Cadillac”, in which the singer replies, “you might say I went right up to the factory and picked it up; it’s cheaper that way”.

The song is in a moderate tempo in the key of F major, with a main chord pattern of F-B?-C7-F. The verses are done in a talking blues style; Cash had used a similar spoken-word format and chord progression in his earlier hit “A Boy Named Sue.