“I shot a man in Reno”

Johnny Cash shot the man just to watch him die. But why in Reno?

Photo Illustration by Don Button

“When I was just a baby, my mama told me, ‘Son
Always be a good boy, don’t every play with guns’
But I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die
When I hear that whistle blowing, I hang my head and cry.”

—Johnny Cash, “Folsom Prison Blues”

In 1955, Johnny Cash uttered a cold confession into Sam Phillips’ Sun Records’ microphone. He sang of an act so base and depraved that it would affect his image for the remainder of his career. It was not so much that he had shot a man, it was the reason for the murder that piqued the interest of so many for so long: He had shot a man just to watch him die.

For the five decades that would follow this lyrical admission, gallons of ink were spilled over Cash’s dark interpretation of Americana, often fixated on the violent act that started it all. But why did Cash choose Reno as a place where such a thing could happen?

“You know it’s just an urban legend, right?” says Scotty Roller, the lead singer for local rockabilly funny men The Saddle Tramps. “He never really shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.”

Lee Barnes, a Nevada writer who has dealt with the subject of Cash’s song, notes, “Of course, that if someone shot a man in Reno just to watch him die, the convict would be spending his time in Carson City"—not in California’s Folsom State Prison, like the protagonist of the song. Indeed, why was the protagonist incarcerated in California when he has shot a man in Nevada?

In interviews, Cash would sometimes claim, assuming the role of the protagonist, that he had also shot a woman in California. But the answer that Cash never really gave is that the act of shooting a man just to watch him die is more about character development than plot development. He is trying to tell the listener that the protagonist is a sociopath. And if that sociopath could commit such a crime in Reno before tramping on to California, who knows what crime he committed there to wind up in prison?

Nonetheless, Nevada musicians, artists and writers who have explored the mythos of Reno owe a lot to Cash. His words are associated with the city around the world, perhaps even more than the city’s far more insecure motto, “The Biggest Little City in the World.” Cash’s single phrase has inspired paintings, fiction, poetry, essays and scholarly works—all of which strongly associate the city with the singer. In the half century since Sam Phillips released the song, the idea and the mystery of Reno have benefited greatly by sharing in the Cash mystique.

“I’d be leery of focusing too much on Cash’s mention of Reno in ‘Folsom Prison Blues,'” says Grant Alden, the founding editor of the now defunct “bible for alternative country music,” No Depression magazine. However, despite his skepticism, Alden offers a possible explanation: “[Cash had been] raised a very straight-laced Baptist in Arkansas. … Reno would’ve been short-hand for Sodom and Gomorrah.”

According to both of his autobiographies and Michael Streissguth’s Cash: The Biography, Cash had never been to Reno while growing up in Dyess, Ark., or while he lived briefly in Pontiac, Mich., or during his stint with the Air Force in Texas. He had never been to Reno at all when he penned the lyrics to “Folsom Prison Blues.” His knowledge of the town must have come entirely from the national media. Reno’s reputation as a “Sodom and Gomorrah,” preceded Cash’s reference to the city, but that reference certainly played a major part in solidifying the reputation for future generations.

Cash himself never fully explained his choice. In his second autobiography, Cash, he writes, “I sat with my pen in my hand, trying to think up the worst reason a person could have for killing another person, and that is what came to mind.”

The fact that he assumed Reno was a place where such a thing could happen illuminates his perception of the Nevada town when he wrote the line, but it does not suggest from where he might have derived the line.

Cash’s biographical explanation of the origin of the song seems almost evasive. He never touches on the musical or cultural influences that might have encouraged his decision to depict such an act or his decision to set that act in Reno. Instead, he decides to attribute the line that made his career to his own artistic authenticity.

Alden suggests there might be more behind his demurring explanation. “That song has somewhat of a checkered history,” he says, stating that the song may have been subject to a plagiarism suit resulting in Cash having to pay a substantial amount of money in compensation. Streissguth, author or editor of three books on Johnny Cash, confirms this conjecture in his book Johnny Cash: The Biography.

He points out that in his later years, Cash told his friend Marty Stuart that he had reworked Jimmie Rodgers’ line “I’m gonna shoot poor Thelma/Just to see her jump and fall,” from “Blue Yodel #1,” into his “Reno line,” and that he had also borrowed from a Gordon Jenkins song, “Crescent City Blues.” Cash avoided mentioning “Crescent City Blues” when talking to reporters and seemed worried about the legal implications of the song throughout the first few decades of his career. He reportedly paid Jenkins an out-of-court cash settlement (no pun intended).

If Cash’s reticence on the subject truly was legal, then his silence does indeed suggest that there might be a traceable lineage to his Reno reference after all. While there are dozens of films, books and magazine articles set in and about Reno prior to Cash’s song, none offer a conclusive connection to Cash’s song. There are at least two possibly influential cultural references, though.

The first possibility is Woody Guthrie’s song “Philadelphia Lawyer.” Guthrie shared many personal and artistic similarities with Cash. Written in 1937, the original title for the song was “Reno Blues.” It was about a conniving lawyer who tried to steal the lady of a Reno “gun-toting cowboy” named Wild Bill. When Wild Bill catches the two together after returning from the cold range, he murders the lawyer, and the song ends. Of course, Guthrie’s Wild Bill has more of a motive than Cash’s protagonist does, but the song does explicitly detail a murder in Reno.

The second possibility comes from a book that was among the first to depict Reno in truly literary fiction: Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s The City of Trembling Leaves. Published in 1945, the novel follows the story of the life of Tim Hazard, a composer of songs about Nevada who plays his music in the Reno honkytonks. While there are many overlapping details between Hazard’s and Cash’s life, the glaring connection between Trembling Leaves and “Folsom Prison Blues” comes in the opening chapter, about the loneliness of Reno:

“Mary told me once that the whistles of the big steam engines were so sad that when they woke her at night, in the bungalow on North Virginia, and she heard their echoes still slowly circling the valley and dying, she would sometimes even cry a little.”

It is impossible to know if this passage inspired Cash’s line, “When I hear that whistle blowing, I hang my head and cry,” or if he ever read the book at all, but the coincidence is significant.

We will never know for sure exactly why Cash chose Reno as the place to have “shot a man … just to watch him die,” but we can appreciate that he did.