The song One Piece at a Time written by Wayne Kemp and made famous by Johnny Cash in 1976 tells the story of a man who steals Cadillac parts over several years and builds his own car.

The song contains lyrics

So we drove up town just to get the tags
And I headed her right on down main drag

What does "get the tags" mean? I assume it's American slang (from the 1970s or more general) but (being British) I have never heard that phrase anywhere else.

  • The song reminds me of "Hole in the Bucket" Commented May 22, 2023 at 17:29
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    A CV for no evidence of reasonable research has disappeared. Commented May 22, 2023 at 18:41
  • @EdwinAshworth Ermm..what? Commented May 22, 2023 at 19:05
  • @Cascabel The 'sign on a road vehicle' sense of 'tag' is to be found in online dictionaries (CD, M-W ...). I C-Vd for lack of reasonable research, but this was quashed. Commented May 23, 2023 at 11:52
  • @EdwinAshworth Ordinarily I would not have answered this Q, but I saw what I believed to be a less than adequate answer with the the green check mark... Commented May 23, 2023 at 15:01

1 Answer 1


When I was growing up and learning to drive in early 1970s New York, tag could also refer to the license plate itself, as the tag number refers to the plate #, and the sticker needs to jibe with that.

Memories of My Life and Travels

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New Jersey police pulled them over because they had "New York tags"; in other words, license plates from out of state.

Life Don't Have to End

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In this case, "paper tags" refer to those temporary cardboard license plates used by the distributor until all paperwork has passed and approved by the Department of Motor Vehicles. "Out of town" tags means from another state.

license plate (US)

[noun] a plate or tag, usually of metal, bearing evidence of official registration and permission, as for the use of a motor vehicle.




a numbered or lettered metal tag displayed on a motor vehicle, indicating that the vehicle has been registered with the state or country and may be driven on public streets and highways


So I believe the song refers to obtaining the final component to make the car apparently street-legal: the license plates.

It's actually the punchline.


Back in those days, believe it or not, as long as you lived in a small town and were on good terms with the local fuzz, you get away with most any infraction on the road.

Just about the worst thing you could do while motoring about was to get lost driving through that small town with "out of state" tags.

The abcolutely worst thing you could do is get caught driving black in a nice car in the same town. We used to call it DWB.

  • I believe in the UK they refer to the tags as number plates. Commented May 22, 2023 at 16:56
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    In Australia they're either number plates of licence plates. When I owned a couple cars in the US at first I thought "tags" were the registration stickers in the corners of the number plate. In fact I think "tags" has both meanings. Commented May 23, 2023 at 7:50

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