One Piece at a Time

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For the Johnny Cash album, see One Piece at a Time (album).
"One Piece at a Time"
Single by Johnny Cash
from the album One Piece at a Time
B-side "Go On Blues"
Released March 1976
Format 7" single
Genre Country, rockabilly, country novelty
Length 4:00
Label Columbia
Writer(s) Wayne Kemp

Charlie Bragg / Don Davis

Audio sample
file info · help
Johnny Cash singles chronology
"Strawberry Cake"
"One Piece at a Time"
"Sold Out of Flagpoles"

"One Piece at a Time" is a country novelty song written by Wayne Kemp[1] and recorded by Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Three in 1976. It 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, on which it peaked at number 29.[2]

Chart performance[edit]

Chart (1976) Peak
U.S. Billboard Hot Country Singles 1
U.S. Billboard Hot 100 29
U.S. Billboard Hot Adult Contemporary Tracks[3] 6
Canadian RPM Country Tracks 1
Canadian RPM Top Singles 40
Canadian RPM Adult Contemporary Tracks 1
U.K. Singles Chart 32

The song's story[edit]

Johnny Cash's "One Piece at a Time" Cadillac. Cash is in the driver's seat and Bruce Fitzpatrick is standing at the far right.

The singer leaves his home in Kentucky in 1949 to pursue work at General Motors in Detroit, Michigan. He assembles wheels on Cadillacs, watching each one roll by day after 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 large lunchbox; larger parts are smuggled out in his co-worker's motor home.

The process of accumulating all the necessary parts turns out to take at least 25 years (the newest part mentioned, the motor, is from 1973), but once they have what they think is a complete car, they attempt to assemble the pieces. Because automakers inevitably make numerous changes to its models, designs and parts over the course of a quarter-century, the result was a hodgepodge of parts from different years and models that did not fit together well (the bolt holes disappear when attempting to fit the motor with a 1953 transmission, there was only one right headlight and two left headlights, and they only had one tail fin).

Despite these 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.

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 could say I went 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."[4]

In popular culture[edit]

  • Bruce Fitzpatrick, owner of Abernathy Auto Parts and Hilltop Auto Salvage in Nashville, Tennessee, was asked by the promoters of the song to build the vehicle for international promotion. Fitzpatrick had all the models of Cadillacs mentioned in the song when it was released and built a car using the song as a model. The result was presented to Cash in April 1976. It was parked outside The House of Cash[5] in Hendersonville, Tennessee, until someone could find a place to store it. After The House of Cash Museum closed, Bruce Fitzpatrick retrieved the '49–'70 Cadillac with a wrecker and brought it back to Abernathy Auto Parts and Hilltop Auto Salvage in Nashville, Tennessee, and crushed it.[6]
  • The song was covered by Chicago rock band Tub Ring for the 2001 Johnny Cash tribute album, Cash from Chaos.
  • The car from the "One Piece at a Time" video is at the Historic Auto Attractions museum in Roscoe, Illinois. This is a different car than the one made by Bruce Fitzpatrick.
  • An attempt at building a vehicle "one piece at a time" was completed successfully over a five-year period by a Chinese motorcycle assembly line worker in Chongqing.[7]
  • This is the first recorded usage of the term "psychobilly". Aided by its later usage by The Cramps and Reverend Horton Heat, the term came to be identified with a genre of music (one that existed since the 1960s, see the Legendary Stardust Cowboy and Hasil Adkins, for instance) crossing rockabilly with punk rock.


  1. ^ "Hall of Fame - Wayne Kemp". Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame Foundation, Inc. Retrieved 29 July 2013. 
  2. ^ Whitburn, Joel (2004). The Billboard Book Of Top 40 Country Hits: 1944-2006, Second edition. Record Research. p. 76. 
  3. ^ Whitburn, Joel (2002). Top Adult Contemporary: 1961-2001. Record Research. p. 49. 
  4. ^ "'One Piece at a Time' sheet music". Retrieved 5 November 2014. 
  5. ^ "The House Of Cash". Retrieved 9 April 2013. 
  6. ^ Neel, Lara (3 March 2014). "A '49–'70 Cadillac Built for Johnny Cash". Motorbooks. Retrieved 29 December 2014. 
  7. ^ "Man stole motorbike - part by part". Ananova. Archived from the original on 22 August 2009. Retrieved 29 July 2013. 

External links[edit]

Preceded by
"After All the Good Is Gone"
by Conway Twitty
Billboard Hot Country Singles
number-one single

May 29-June 6, 1976
Succeeded by
"I'll Get Over You"
by Crystal Gayle
RPM Country Tracks
number-one single

June 19, 1976
Succeeded by
"El Paso City"
by Marty Robbins