I Shot a Man in Reno
Johnny Cash leaned into his outlaw ways with two incredible performances at Folsom Prison on this day, January 13, 1968. Read more about how Cash came up with the song and its impact on his life.
When I was just a baby,
my Momma told me,
“Son, always be a good boy,
don’t ever play with guns.”
But I shot a man in Reno
Just to watch him die.
Johnny Cash wrote these lyrics to Folsom Prison Blues in 1953. Years earlier, he listened to a similar song that fretted about hearing whistling trains and town boys who never kissed the female lead singer.
It stirred the following lines:
When I hear that whistleblowing,
I hang my head and cry.
Not exactly the same message, but Folsom Prison Blues immediately became a Cash signature song when it was recorded two years later.
It was included in his debut album Johnny Cash with His Hot and Blue Guitar!, released in 1957. I have no idea why he was releasing songs years before the album was out, but whatever, it was a remarkable introduction.
Johnny Cash with His Hot and Blue Guitar! featured themes of whistles, trains, prison, drinking, and crying. It would sound like a typical weekend for me if you threw in passing out around 8:30 p.m.
I Walk the Line, Cry!, Cry!, Cry!, and So Doggone Lonesome were three additional songs that became instant hits.
In the early 1950s, Cash had moved to Memphis after spending a few years in the Air Force playing around with Morse code and probably introduced himself to strangers with “Hello, I’m John R. Cash.” After getting out, he moved to Tennessee and started selling appliances.
Sun Records was based in Memphis, and Cash auditioned by singing about the Lord and other spiritual topics. However, the guy running Sun Records turned Cash down, told him he was no longer selling gospel music, and encouraged Cash to create songs about sin.
Cash began his homework by remembering he had watched a movie called Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison, where inmates tried to escape the harsh punishment of the California penitentiary but ultimately caused a riot that killed a few guards.
After the attempted escape, the prison hires a captain who thinks perhaps beating the prisoners isn’t such a good idea and rehabilitation might be a better idea. The warden didn’t like arts & crafts and other nonsense, so he fired the sissy captain and resumed the beating, leading to another riot and more death.
(Actually, it left a favorable impression on Cash concerning prisoner treatment.)
Cash then wrote the line about killing the man in Reno for fun, mashed it with the crying girl hearing the whistle training, and boom, you win the 1969 Grammy for Best Country Vocal Performance, Male Award.
How did Cash win such a prestigious award for a song he wrote 15 years earlier?
Well, he performs two live shows at Folsom Prison on this day, January 13, 1968.
At this point in Cash’s career, his popularity wasn’t as high, primarily due to spending a lot of time being high. Needing to do something innovative to revive his career, Cash and his manager came up with the idea of producing a live album from prison.
It would fit perfectly into the outlaw image Cash had been perfecting throughout the 60s. Plus, prisoners from all over were begging him to come and perform it live.
Cash and his band performed twice, once in the morning and again just before 1:00 p.m. (if the morning show was terrible). He opened each set with Folsom Prison Blues. (When you listen to the recording, you hear the inmates cheer at the shot of a man in Reno line).
Cash spent most of the set singing songs of gloom, which I guess didn’t matter because the prisoners loved it. The first show was such a hit that everyone was gassed for the afternoon edition.
With the Grammy in hand, Cash’s career began a brief upswing. He started advocating for the American Indians and performing antiwar songs. In the 1970s, Cash donned his well-known wardrobe of all black in tribute to the poor and hungry, the prisoner who paid his debt, and anyone who lost years to drugs.
Despite his battles, Cash remained a strong Christian. Later in life, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and four months after his beloved June passed in 2003, Cash succumbed to complications of diabetes. He was 71.
I’m a big Johnny Cash fan. I saw him live when I was ten in Cleveland, although this past holiday, there seems to be some dispute about whether this is true.
Whatever, in my mind, I remember the concert well. I had a good time. June and the kids were there, wearing all black. Jamming.
Folsom Prison Blues is one of my favorite Cash songs. I also like Jackson, and of course, I Walk the Line. 3 Feet High and Rising makes me smile despite the dire subject matter.
They all remind me of my dad, who introduced me to Cash.
Do you have any particular favorites? Please share them below!