“I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.”
To say that Folsom Prison Blues is one of the most iconic and important country songs of all time would be far from an understatement. From the iconic recording at Folsom State Prison to the lasting impact it had on Johnny Cash’s career, it’s hard to find many other songs that have stood the test of time the way Folsom Prison Blues has.
Nearly every country music fan knows the song itself; however, many might not know the long road it had to get to #1.
Originally recorded and released alongside So Doggone Lonesome in 1955, the song did quite well commercially. It went all the way up to #4 on Billboard’s Country and Western Best Sellers chart.
However, Folsom Prison Blues took on an entirely new life after his iconic performance inside the walls of Folsom State Prison on Jan. 13, 1968. After releasing the iconic live album, the song received an entirely stronger reception both critically and commercially.
It quickly rose to #1 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart and peaked at #32 on the Hot 100. The newly-recorded live version also earned Cash his first of four Grammy Awards throughout his career, this time for Best Male Country Vocal Performance at the 11th Annual Grammy Awards in 1969.
As for the creation of the song, Cash was inspired after watching the 1951 film, Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison, on a station in West Germany serving in the Air Force.
“It was a violent movie, and I just wanted to write a song that would tell what I thought it would be like in prison.”
For the iconic lyric, “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die,” Cash wanted to write something unimaginably evil to emphasize the violence and depravity found inside the walls of Folsom State Prison.
“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’s what came to mind.”
Listen to the live version here: