Answer Man

Johnny Cash song leaves some with a burning question

Johnny Cash in a file photo performing on March 15, 1997 at the Majestic Theatre in downtown Dallas, Texas.
Johnny Cash in a file photo performing on March 15, 1997 at the Majestic Theatre in downtown Dallas, Texas. TNS

Q: Here’s another burning question for which America deserves an answer: In Johnny Cash’s song “Folsom Prison Blues,” why the heck is the guy doing his time in a California state pen when he shot the man in Reno, Nev.? Shouldn’t he be in a Nevada jail or federal prison?

Vic, of Fairview Heights

A: It’s a good thing writers of fiction are not arrested for taking liberties with reality or else the Man in Black would have been facing a hefty sentence for this song alone.

I mean, you didn’t even ask about an even crazier geographical anomaly: If he’s stuck in Folsom Prison in the middle of California, would he really be hearing a train “rollin’ on down to San Antone,” nearly 2,000 miles to the southeast? Sounds like one hopelessly lost engineer to me.

As to Cash’s choice of Graybar Hotels, theories are many, so consider these while you’re drinkin’ coffee and smokin’ your big cigar:

Perhaps Cash can simply plead ignorance. In 1953, he was a relatively uneducated 21-year-old from rural Arkansas who was serving an Air Force hitch. While stationed in West Germany, he started a band called the Landsberg Barbarians, which allowed him to improve his guitar skills while testing his songwriting talents.

“We were terrible,” he said later. “But that Lowenbrau beer will make you feel like you’re great. We’d take our instruments to these honky-tonks and play until they threw us out or a fight started.”

But one experience would leave its mark on country music forever: Cash’s commanding officer had his men watch Crane Wilbur’s film “Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison,” a lockup famous for its harsh conditions and dangerous prisoners. The documentary immediately inspired Cash to write one of his signature tunes, although his obvious lack of knowledge of the justice system has left many like you scratching their heads over his legal lingo.

Other explanations are much more imaginative. Perhaps while running from Nevada authorities, he crossed state lines and either wounded or killed a California lawman in a shootout. Since Nevada apparently had just one major prison at the time (in Carson City), the state might have been satisfied to let its neighbor deal with the heartless felon.

Or maybe the man had eluded capture for his murder and was serving time in Folsom for some nefarious deed committed in California. In the song, the man now is ruing the shooting that launched his life of crime. Or, if you want to go from the sublime to the ridiculous, there’s always the theory that “Reno” is short for “Reno Junction, Calif,” an unincorporated town on the Nevada border — and just 150 miles northeast of Folsom.

Don’t think so? Neither do I. For the real reason, you have to go back to the 1960s, when San Francisco photographer Jim Marshall asked Cash point-blank about the Reno-Folsom discrepancy. Marshall had been taking pictures of Cash since 1962, when they met in a New York City club. Seven years later, he would snap the famous shot of Cash flashing his middle finger in response to a question of how he felt about the prison officials at San Quentin. So if anybody felt comfortable questioning Cash about his lyrics, it was Marshall.

The simple reply? “That’s called poetic license,” Cash told him. Like “San Antone,” Reno simply fit the song better than, say, Lodi or Chico, even if it is in a neighboring state.

Sounds like the perfect get-out-of-jail-free card to me.

Before we say goodbye to 2017 Sunday night, a couple of leftovers:

▪ It’s a gas: When I wrote about carbon monoxide detectors in October, I said there were none for cars. Now, that’s no longer true. Just last month, Ken Galatsis and Sarah Kong, of Carbon Monoxide Forensics in Los Angeles, wrote to say they have begun marketing a model designed specifically for motor vehicles. It features a two-stage alert system with a red LED that flashes at a concentration above 9 parts per million and a buzzer that sounds once levels surpass 25 ppm. The developers say home detectors go off at 70 ppm, so this device will alert drivers long before the gas becomes debilitating. They are available for $99 on For more information, watch the video at

▪ Who was that masked man: My answer about the meaning of “kemo sabe” as it refers to the Lone Ranger continues to draw responses, this one from Lindsay Marean, who helped write the Forest County, Wis., Potawatomi Dictionary: “Our Potawatomi elders settled on the definition of ‘he/she peeks’ for our word ‘gimozabe,’” Marean wrote. “My understanding is that it referred to the Lone Ranger’s mask, behind which he peeked at the world.” See the tribe’s website at

▪ Here we come a-caroling: In writing recently about Christmas music old and new, I regretted not mentioning my own personal favorites, because everyone I’ve ever played them for has seemed to love them — the Roche Sisters’ “We Three Kings” and Blackmore’s Night’s “Winter Carols,” featuring Ritchie Blackmore, who graduated from the hard-rock Deep Purple to folk, and his wife, Candice Night. Of course, just for fun, I always throw on Sheb Wooley’s “Santa and the Purple People Eater” and, when I tire of the screechings of Simon, Theodore and Alvin, Bob Rivers’ version of “The Christmas Song” (“Chipmunks Roasting on an Open Fire”).

Today’s trivia

Years after writing “Folsom Prison Blues,” Johnny Cash wound up paying a $75,000 settlement for plagiarism. What song did he steal from to write his country classic?

Answer to Friday’s trivia: In 1974, John Gribbin and Stephen Plagemann wrote “The Jupiter Effect,” a book claiming that a coming planetary alignment would cause all kinds of catastrophes on Earth. Of course, nothing ever happened, but that didn’t stop astronomer Patrick Moore from having a final bit of fun. On April Fools Day, 1976, Moore told his BBC audience that at 9:47 a.m. Pluto would pass behind Jupiter, creating the “Jovian-Plutonian Gravitational Effect.” This, he said, would decrease the Earth’s gravity briefly and that if you jumped in the air at that time, you’d be able to feel it. Naturally, many listeners later called in, swearing that they had momentarily floated as if they were weightless. As Becky Little once noted in National Geographic, that was one small step for parody, one giant leap for gullibility.

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer