Yeehaw…The Psycho-Billy Cadillac
The typical rock and roll or pop song follows a slightly varied formula: verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/chorus. Now, don’t start correcting me—I wrote “typical,” so slight variations exist, and some formulas use synonyms to the word “bridge” like “tag”. Even the minor variations on that structure, however, still remain typical or standard. One song exists that has always bothered me because not only does it end on the tag, but I always want to hear that tag more than once.
Rock and roll—music in general really—gets categorized into types, and one of my favorite types of music has always been from the storyteller type of artist, though it’s not something I identified until later in life. Give me Bruce Springsteen and Rod Stewart over the fill-in-the-blank-for-today’s-pop artist.
And the greatest rock and roll storyteller of them all was Johnny Cash, the one and only artist—a god actually—who could sing it gospel, country or rockabilly and break those genre walls. But just like with a lot of artists, we only hear the best of his work on the radio. And no other song makes me turn up the volume and sing with him more than “One Piece at a Time.”
In this story-song our narrator lives as a working man, moving to Detroit in ’49 and working on an automobile assembly line where for the first year “they had me puttin’ wheels on Cadillacs” and it brought him down so much that he would hang his head and cry “Cuz I always wanted me one.” So he “devised” himself a plan to steal the parts out using his lunchbox, and when he was finished doing so, and as the chorus goes he’d “drive everybody wild/Cuz I’ll have the only one there is around,” and he could not have been more right.
He starts off with a “lunchbox full of gears,” followed by a fuel pump, engine, trunk, the transmission, “and all the chrome.” Whatever didn’t fit into the lunchbox they “snuck out [of] my buddy’s mobile home,” pronounced “mo-bill”.
The problem is that he “strung” this out “over several years,” and to give you an idea of how long it took when they put that there vehicle together “The transmission was a ‘53” and “The motor turned out to be a ’73.”
Now, the bridge—remember above when I explained the whole verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/chorus?—well the bridge actually ends the song. It starts with cb talk. And for you word nerds out there Cash is the first to record—and Kent the first to document—the word “psycho-billy.” It’s the first documented use of that word, and the Cramps borrowed it from this song the same year to describe their style. Damn, I love words.
My main qualm is that the bridge is the best part of the song and the funniest. After the cb talk Cash sings: “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.” Those who know just read it in their heads to the music, I know.
I still have another qualm though. The Storyteller dominated country music from the late 60s through the 80s, including “Ode to Billie Joe” written and recorded by Bobbie Gentry in 1967; “Harper Valley PTA” written by Tom T. Hall in 1968 and recorded originally by Jeannie C. Riley that same year; and “The Gambler” written by Don Schlitz in 1976 and made famous by Kenny Rogers in 1978. The problem is that “Ode to Billie Joe” was made into a movie in 1976, “Harper Valley PTA” a tv series with Barbara (Bewitched) Taulbee Eden in 1981, and The Gambler into a quintet of movies—that’s five. It just doesn’t roll off the tongue like “trilogy”. So why has Johnny Cash’s “One Piece at a Time” never found its way to the big screen or even the little screen? It’s beyond me, but fret if you want to make this into a movie because somebody already made the car. Somebody went and made the car from “One Piece at a Time.” It even has just the one tailfin, two headlights on one side and one on the other.